Packers dealt good hands
But this had nothing to do with football.
The receivers were quarreling about a season-long card game—Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings vs. James Jones and Donald Driver—in which the losers buy dinner for the winners the night before road games.
A reporter opened a can of worms by asking about the ongoing Spades game.
“We are demolishing them,” a delighted Jennings said. “It’s Jordy and me against ‘Drive’ and loser (Jones). Or J.J. and loser (Driver), whichever way you want to say it. They both make critical mistakes. It’s ridiculous the mistakes they make.”
His playful crowing did not sit well with an indignant Jones, whose locker is next to Jennings’ locker.
Jones: “You guys are losing right now.”
Jennings: “Are you serious?”
Jones: “You guys aren’t winning the series.”
Jennings: “Yes we are. Yes we are. Are you kidding me?”
Jones: “We didn’t finish that last game.”
Jennings: “Yes we did. Yes we did. Y’all quit. ‘Drive’ quit. He said, ‘It’s over.’”
Nelson wasn’t much of an arbiter.
“We dominate,” he said with a grin.
On and on it went, banter that underscored the competitiveness and closeness of the group.
From the standpoints of talent and depth, the Packers’ five receivers (including Brett Swain) compare favorably with any group in the NFL. Position coach Jimmy Robinson said his unit ranked with the “run-and-shoot” Atlanta Falcons he coached in the early 1990s.
“From top to bottom, probably so, although quite honestly we had a very talented group in Atlanta,” Robinson said. “But in my mind, this group is right there. I think we’ve got four guys who are starter-caliber guys.”
Green Bay often employed four- and five-receiver sets this season, both to take advantage of mismatches and to offset an inconsistent running game.
The Packers spread the field in a 20-17 loss to the Falcons on Nov. 28. Handicapped by a ground game that managed a paltry 26 yards from running backs, quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 344 yards. Jennings, Nelson and Jones all caught five passes and Driver and Swain caught two each.
Though the emergence of James Starks has since improved the Packers’ running game, the receivers are ready for anything in the rematch with Atlanta in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday night.
“We believe our fifth receiver is better than their fifth (defensive back),” Nelson said, speaking in general terms and not specifically about the Falcons. “When that happens you’re in a good situation and they have to figure out something to stop us.”
Jennings led the team with 76 receptions and 12 touchdowns in the regular season and finished fourth in the NFL with 1,265 receiving yards. Driver caught 51 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns, Jones had 50-679-5, Nelson 45-582-2 and Swain 6-72-0.
Off the field, the receivers are a close-knit bunch. Their wives are close and they socialize together, taking turns hosting dinners or breaking out in impromptu Xbox Kinect dance competitions.
“I’m not going to disclose who’s the best dancer,” Jennings said. “I don’t like to brag.”
Driver, who turns 36 on Feb. 2 and is the oldest of the receivers by nine years, said he had never been part of a closer group in his 12 years with the Packers. Jennings said the unit was “much closer than when I was a rookie.”
“The good thing about it is we’re all married guys,” Driver said. “When I came into the league, everybody was single. We had one guy that was married and that was Bill Schroeder. Robert Brooks got married and then I got married.
“But this group, we’re all married and we can get together as married couples and have a good time. We all love one another and our wives love one another.”
The receivers spent time last off-season on Nelson’s family farm in Riley County, Kan. It was an eye-opening experience for Driver, born in Houston; Jennings, born in Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Jones, born in San Jose, Calif.
“That was like checking something off the bucket list,” Jennings said with a laugh. “It was an amazing experience. It was fun to see how Jordy actually lives down there. The wives liked it but they didn’t love it.
“We had a blast acting the fool. We did farming things. We got to see how they artificially inseminate cows. We actually did it. You’ve got to stick your hand in there. It was nice and warm.”
The receivers’ closeness allows them to criticize each other’s play in a way that’s constructive and sometimes harsh, but never mean-spirited.
“We are very tough on each other,” Nelson said. “We hold each other to a high standard on everything from route-running to drops to catches to moves after you catch it. If you do something that’s not up to our standards, you get made fun of. We’re on you about it. We’re very competitive in that aspect and we’ll let you know if you did a good job or not.”
Said Swain, “If you screw up, make sure you’re ready to get an earful.”
Nelson said the receivers did not believe in fines but had other ways to dole out “punishment” for mistakes. Driver said no one was exempt.
“That’s who we are,” he said. “We’re not changing for anyone. You’ve got to understand that when you come in, regardless of whether you’re a rookie or a six-year veteran. We’re not changing. So if the rookie drops a ball we’re going to chew him out and laugh and joke with him.
“If he gets mad, he’ll be fine. It’s just him against the rest of the group and he’ll never win that battle.”
But the receivers know when to back off, too. After Jones dropped what would have been a sure 63-yard touchdown catch against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, his buddies knew better than to pile on.
“Especially not during the game,” Nelson said. “We got a little thing to punish him. He knows it. We’ve all had them. That’s part of being a receiver.”
Jennings said the strong bond among the receivers allowed them to withstand the sometimes withering criticism from their teammates.
“Because of the relationships that we’ve established off the field, it helps guys cope with the fact that, look, these guys are going to get on me,” he said. “You can’t take it personally but at the same time you should take it personally.”
Robinson said the receivers knew when to have fun but were serious when it came to film study, meetings and practice.
“They’re focused,” he said. “I think it’s fine for there to be some lightness occasionally. We’re not battling cancer here. We try to make this thing fun while at the same time being serious about our jobs and being professionals.”
Driver has seen receivers come and go over the years. He knows the makeup of the current group could be different next year.
“The friendships don’t come to an end but playing the game comes to an end,” he said. “Guys walk away or go to different places. You have to deal with that. But right now, we’re all here together and we hope that we can stay together for a long time.”