The Packers might have one of the most-talented and deepest groups of wide receivers in the entire NFL, but it’s been a mix-and-match group all season long.
Ever since Greg Jennings injured his abdominal muscle in Week 1, they’ve rarely had all their options on the field all at the same time. Just when one player was getting healthy, another would get injured.
Jennings missed seven games at midseason and eight games total. Jordy Nelson missed three games late in the season with hamstring and ankle injuries, which he aggravated on Sunday. Randall Cobb missed the regular-season finale against the Vikings with knee and ankle injuries. Only James Jones has remained unscathed.
Entering the re-match against the Vikings in the Wildcard round of the playoffs on Saturday, the situation at receiver remains in flux both in terms of health and where Aaron Rodgers’ targets will line up on the football field.
Nelson is the biggest question mark at this point. He told reporters on Wednesday that he hopes to play, plans on playing and has been practicing, but head coach Mike McCarthy expressed reservations.
“I thought Jordy ran well in the workout that he did in the Hutson Center,” McCarthy said during his Wednesday press conference. “He looked pretty good in the routes in there. I know (team doctor) Pat McKenzie wants to evaluate him again tomorrow. He wants to make sure. He has some concerns. It will probably take through tomorrow to see where Jordy is.”
Cobb is in the same boat as Nelson in that he thinks he’ll be able to play, but Cobb was only a limited participant at practice prior to Thursday.
There’s a common refrain among injured football players who miss a regular-season game and say they’d be playing if were the playoffs when there’s more at stake. That’s probably where Nelson and Cobb are at this point.
The question remains, however, where will they line up and how often?
When Cobb missed Sunday’s Vikings game, Jennings frequently lined up as the slot receiver and had arguably his best game of the season with a team-leading eight receptions and two touchdowns.
Now that it appears Cobb will return, does Jennings go back to playing on the perimeter? How do all the receivers share snaps? Will Cobb’s and Nelson’s snaps be limited as they return from injury?
These are all questions that probably won’t be answered until the game unfolds, but as Jennings notes, having so many options available makes it hard on a defense that’s trying to game-plan for such a dangerous set of threats.
“It’s different because you have to account for everyone,” said Jennings. “Randall out of the backfield, Randall in the slot, Jordy outside/inside, myself outside/inside with James doing what he’s been able to do. You can’t just pick and choose who you’re going to account for; you’re going to have to account for everyone out there, because everyone’s capable of making the big play at any given time.”
For McCarthy it doesn’t matter who’s available. Each receiver on the team is capable of lining up at different spots on the field. Rodgers doesn’t have to worry about who’s in the game and who’s out. He just throws the ball to whoever’s open.
“You try not to just line up in one personnel group, as we do not,” said McCarthy. “You try to make sure you have plenty for everybody. We’re a concept-driven offense. We don’t just line up and run plays for a person. That’s the beauty of how our quarterback is able to play and is productive as he is.”
Then there’s dilemma about whether to play Donald Driver, the ever-popular persona whose production has declined precipitously in 2012.
Early in the season, the Packers deferred to Driver’s experience and body of work. Even though he has only eight receptions, he at least played––however sparingly––the first 11 games of the year.
In the last five games, Driver has been a healthy scratch in five of them. The Packers decided that first-year players Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross have been better alternatives, perhaps in part because they also play on special teams.
Boykin injured his ankle in last Sunday’s game against the Vikings and won’t be playing in the Wildcard round, opening the door for a potential return by Driver.
At 37 years old, even if Driver does play, he’ll be the fifth-option at wide receiver at best assuming the rest are healthy and even further down the pecking order if you include the tight ends.
But for a player who was voted a playoff captain in 2011 and whose national celebrity is unrivaled thanks winning “Dancing with the Stars,” it’s worth watching what could be Driver’s final games in a Packers uniform.