After missing almost a full year, can a 31-year-old Jordy Nelson get back to the top of his profession to help the Green Bay Packers get back on top of the NFL?
The Packers activated Nelson from the physically unable to perform list on Wednesday, one day before their second preseason game at home against Oakland. When he hits the practice field on Saturday, it will be 363 days since he sustained a torn ACL at Pittsburgh.
That injury doomed one of the league’s great offenses to mediocrity and, as a byproduct, ruined the Packers’ season
In 2014, when Nelson caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, the Packers led the NFL in scoring.
In 2015, when defenses shrugged their shoulders at the Packers’ deep passing game, they scored 118 fewer points, or 7.4 less per game.
Aaron Rodgers won his second MVP award in 2014. In 2015, we learned that Nelson might be the team’s MVP.
Just look at how the impact of Nelson’s injury rippled through the lineup:
— Rodgers went from a 112.2 passer rating, 8.43 yards per attempt and 65.6 percent accuracy to a 92.2 passer rating, 6.68 yards per attempt and 60.7 percent accuracy. Remember, entering last season, here’s where Rodgers ranked all-time in those numbers: No. 1 with a 106.0 passer rating, No. 3 with 8.22 yards per attempt and No. 4 with 65.8 percent accuracy. In the most stunning of falls, the quarterback with the third-highest yards-per-attempt rate in NFL history ranked just 30th last season.
— In 2014, Randall Cobb caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. Without Nelson, defenses focused on Cobb and limited him to 79 receptions for 829 yards. Half of his six touchdowns came in Week 3 against Kansas City. Cobb caught 61.2 percent of passes thrown his way compared to 74.1 during his first four seasons and 71.7 percent in 2014. His YAC per catch dipped from 6.79 to 5.67, his yards per catch plunged from 14.1 to 10.5 and his 25-yard gains tumbled from 12 to just six.
— Yeah, Eddie Lacy was overweight. But defenses, with no fear of Green Bay’s deep passing game, keyed on Lacy, frequently sticking with their base defense against the Packers’ three-receiver sets. That left Green Bay outmanned in the box. Thus, Lacy’s average went from 4.59 yards per carry to 4.05.
— Yeah, the offensive line didn’t play as well, due in part to injuries that forced a combined 10 missed starts compared to one in 2014. But with Rodgers surveying the defense for what seemed like an eternity at times, the sack count rose from 30 to 47.
Nelson’s impact was that profound because he is that dynamic of a player. Or, at least, was that dynamic of a player. Even while missing all of last season, Nelson and DeSean Jackson are tied with a league-high 14 receiving touchdowns of at least 50 yards since the start of the 2010 season. No one else has more than 10. The Packers have a 15-game regular-season winning streak when Nelson scores a touchdown, with their last loss being the 2013 opener at San Francisco. When he doesn't score? The Packers were 5-10-1 in 2013 and 2014.
Nelson’s 2014 season rivals almost any receiving season in NFL history. His was one of seven all-time with at least his total of catches, yards and touchdowns. Nelson caught five touchdown passes of at least 59 yards. That was more 59-yard catches — touchdown or nontouchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams.
As a total offense, the Packers had nine passing plays of at least 55 yards in 2014 — second-most in the league. Last year, they had two — only three teams had fewer.
Can Nelson return to that elite form with a short training camp? There’s some precedent. In 2013, he played only one series in the preseason due to a knee injury but caught 85 passes for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns, despite Rodgers missing half of the season with a broken collarbone.
However, unlike a few years ago, Nelson is 31 and coming off a significant injury that cost him an entire season. Fortunately for the Packers, Nelson might not have to carry the big-play load. While Jeff Janis was having a disappointing training camp before breaking his hand, tight end Jared Cook has the speed and track record to keep defenses honest.
“We haven’t had everybody together,” Rodgers said this week. “When we do, I think it could be special.”
Being special will depend on the Nelson of 2016 playing an awful lot like the Nelson of recent vintage.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.