There's an endless amount of parallels you can draw between the Packers' Donald Driver and the Ravens' Ray Lewis. Both have been with their team since the last millennium. Both came from troubled childhoods and persevered to achieve something better for themselves and their families. And, both can carve themselves a niche as one of the best players at their position in NFL history.
And, of course, both can lay claim to special trophies: each has a Super Bowl ring. To his extra credit, Driver has a curious spherical trophy won on a certain reality competition that endeared him to a wide spectrum of fans nationwide...as well as forcing his traditional fan base to get a little "cultured" along the way.
Of course, there are differences. Ray Lewis is a lock as an NFL Hall of Famer, while Driver may end up being one of those names always mentioned but never quite making it amidst what is always a glut of talented players vying at the wide receiver position. There's no denying that Lewis's impact as a middle linebacker is more historically significant than Driver's impact as a wide receiver.
But, we're not talking historical legacies here. No, I'm talking about the love a fan base has for its favorite player, and Donald Driver is as much "Mr. Packer" as Lewis is "Mr. Raven". There's been all the talk of Lewis as the "Original Raven", having been the only holdover on the roster from the infamous move from Cleveland. Yet, Driver has also been with the Packers dating back to an era that could also be considered a major milestone in franchise history: he is the original post-Holmgren Packer, part of the nucleus that defined the "new phase" of the organization.
While Lewis's career has seen its ups-and-downs with the Ravens, he's been a constant for Baltimore and its fans. They can all remember him winning that Super Bowl MVP during a season when the Ravens had no business being in the ultimate game. Yet, despite not having an offense, the Ravens won that Super Bowl with little else but their defense.
And that defense was named Ray Lewis.
Perhaps Driver can't claim those heights, but he can certainly claim to have personified "Packer People" at the times it mattered most. In 2003, it was Driver who rallied what had been previously a pedestrian receiving corps to rise to the occasion when Brett Favre lost his father, yet decided to play on Monday Night Football. It was he who said, "Anything you throw, we will catch."
And they did.
When the divorce of Favre ripped Packer Nation apart, it was Driver who took over the mantle as the face of the organization and continued to rise to new receiving heights, regardless of who was throwing him the ball. And when he finally made it to a Super Bowl in 2010, he fought off a sprained ankle to return to the game after being carted off after only two catches. This is the kind of man who wins a Walter Payton Man of the Year award, which he did in 2002.
While Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews may be the faces of the organization today, no Packer is more beloved than the man with the megawatt smile and a heart three sizes too large. Which is why yesterday, despite all of the glory and celebration surrounding the Packers' playoff win over the Vikings, seeing a healthy Driver on the sideline in street clothes was heartbreaking.
We saw something different when the Ravens took on the Indianapolis Colts in their own wild card game. Lewis, who had been injured for weeks and had already announced his retirement following this season, was activated and allowed his final appearance in front of his own crowd. Delirious fans took videos with their smart phones of Lewis doing one last demonstrative entrance during starting lineups, with tears running down their faces. They saw him make 13 tackles and almost make an interception that would have likely run back for a touchdown.
But, at the final two-minute warning, the big screen showed a moving tribute to Lewis' long career with the Ravens, and if you were wearing purple in the stands and didn't have a tear streaming down your cheek by the end of that video, you didn't have a soul. The idea of such a video tribute reminded me of several of the montages dedicated to Reggie White that stirred the Lambeau crowd to silent reverence.
At the end, Lewis took his place behind the quarterback as the safety for the final kneel-down to raucous applause, and then he did what he wanted to do: he shared a final thank-you with the fans that forgave his early transgressions and loved him unconditionally for 16 seasons. He blew kisses to the crowd and took a victory lap with the fans who had spontaneously chanted "Thank you, Ray!" as the game came to a close. They cherished every moment of their last time with #52 on their field.
And Donald Driver deserved just as much Saturday night. Oh, I know all of the arguments and rationalizations justifying it, trust me.
"This is a business, and the Packers are in the business of winning football games.
"If you want to suit up, be the player they can't afford to play without."
"The Packers are looking to the future, and can't be stuck in the past."
"If he wants the attention, he should just announce his retirement instead of leaving open the possibility with playing with another team next year."
And I buy it. That is, I bought it until I saw the love affair that Baltimore celebrated one last time with Lewis, and it made those rationalizations seem like little more than excuses. Because, no matter what, the NFL is serving a customer for whom "rationality" isn't exactly one of the top requirements on the resume'.
And you would have to make a pretty rational and convincing argument that would tell me that Driver doesn't not have a similar love affair with the Green Bay faithful, and that giving him the opportunity for one more starting lineup, the possibility of one last Lambeau Leap, and the guarantee of being able to say goodbye, in uniform, to the fans that have blessed him over the years wasn't in everyone's best interest.
Mike McCarthy addressed Driver spending his likely last game at home in street clothes today in a press conference.
"Donald Driver is a class act to say the least,” McCarthy said. “He’s a pro’s pro. He does everything you ever ask of him. We’ve had conversations of late here, … and he’s handled it very well. He’s an excellent teammate. Everyone clearly understands what he means to the organization and what he’s done.
“He’s out there preparing every day, getting ready to play. He may have an opportunity this week. We’ll see how it shakes down. Those are very difficult decisions to make, when you have a healthy 53, to get to 46.”
But even if McCarthy gives him an active roster spot in San Francisco, the final chance for Driver to say farewell has likely passed, unless an unlikely set of scenarios takes place that would allow the NFC Championship to return to Lambeau Field in a few weeks.
Perhaps in a year or two, Donald will be invited back as a "Living Legend", walking out of the tunnel before the real team is announced, and get a shower of adulation. While a wonderful sentiment, it pales in comparison to what the Ravens did with Lewis today.
Simply put, Donald Driver, the Packers' all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, deserved a better send-off than this.
Please don't interpret this article as a condemnation of the Packers, Ted Thompson, or Mike McCarthy. They've done far more good over the years than they've done bad, and I'm certain that this publicly-owned team has done far more for the community than 80% of the NFL teams out there. And, of course, they've done a heck of a lot more winning than most teams out there, too.
This was a missed opportunity for the Packers to do something important that may not have made a difference in the final score, but might have made a huge difference in the hearts of their most productive receiver and their fans. If those unlikely circumstances occur, leading to one final game for Driver to come out of that tunnel, one more first-down-shimmy, and if all the stars align, one more Lambeau Leap...let's hope that the Packers do the right thing.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan (and yes, is a Packer fan more than a Driver fan), a feature writer for CheeseheadTV, co-host of the weekly Packer podcast Cheesehead Radio, and good cop at PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.