At the trade deadline almost two months ago, Packers general manager Ted Thompson acquired superstar tight end Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City, only to have Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson pull the rug out from under the deal at the last minute.
Nobody ever will confuse the Packers' Donald Lee with Gonzalez, but Green Bay finally is getting significant contributions from their starting tight end.
Lee has scored touchdowns in three of the Packers' last four games, giving him five on the season. That's tied with the Giants' Kevin Boss for third-most among NFL tight ends, behind only Gonzalez (seven) and the Chargers' Antonio Gates (six).
"Any time you have a new quarterback, things change a little," Lee said on Friday, two days before the Packers will try to snap a three-game losing streak at Jacksonville. "I just feel like that we're on the same page now more than when the season first started. I'm not really sure about why we started off slow like that, but I'm glad we've got everything turned around. I'm looking forward to finishing it off strong."
Last year, Lee enjoyed the best season of his six-year career with 48 catches, 575 yards and six touchdowns, and he was rewarded with a four-year contract extension worth almost $12 million. This year, Lee's 37 catches have him on pace to about equal that figure, but his 295 yards and 8.0-yard average are lagging far off that pace.
Nonetheless, with 11 touchdowns the last two seasons, Lee's value in the offense is evident.
"That's a lot of touchdowns in almost two complete seasons, so that says a lot about his value to the offense," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin told Packers.com this week. "You put the ball in the end zone 11 times, you're an important part of what we are doing."
Lee's importance has been raised the last four weeks, when he's caught 14 passes for the most productive four-game span of his season.
"You know what? I really don't know," Lee said when asked to explain his increased output. "Just making sure I play hard. I've been doing the same thing I've been doing the whole year. I think the quarterback is doing a good job of spreading the ball around."
Not surprisingly, the soft-spoken Lee didn't go to the coaches or to Rodgers to request more balls be thrown his way.
"I don't really talk ... I really hate to talk to a man like that because it's his first year and he's already got a lot of stuff coming his way, and I didn't want to be added pressure. I just stayed humble and worked hard," Lee said.
Lee ranks 15th among tight ends in receptions and just 26th in yards, compared to 11th in receptions and ninth in yards last season.
And while Lee is a big threat in goal-line situations, his impact between the 20-yard lines has been minimal. Just 32.4 of his receptions have gone for first downs, far behind guys like Gates (69.6 percent), Gonzalez (69.2) and Jets rookie Dustin Keller (69.0). In fact, 17 tight ends with at least 20 catches have converted at least 60 percent of their receptions into first downs. Last year, Lee turned 60.4 percent of his catches into first downs.
In that light, the coaches no doubt would like to make Lee a bigger factor on third downs. In last week's loss to Houston, the Packers were 1-for-7 on third-down plays ranging from 1 to 5 yards. That was a killer stat in the 24-21 loss.
"To have seven of them in a game offensively, before the game started, you'd be happy if you were in that situation," Philbin told reporters on Monday.
But at least Lee is putting points on the scoreboard recently. That's a good thing, right?
"No, not really," Lee said. "Winning is the most important thing. It feels good catching balls and scoring touchdowns, but it really don't mean nothing if you're not winning. I'll take winning any day. I that means me not touching the ball and we win, I'd rather do that because that's what we're all here for, and that's to win and win a Super Bowl. I just try not to be a selfish person and play the game for what it's worth and be glad he's coming my way."
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Tight end Lee making his points
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