GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson would go on to have bigger games, and the Green Bay Packers would go on to win more important ones, thanks in part to his evolution as a wide receiver.
But if you are looking for a moment when it became clear just how indispensable Nelson would become to the Packers offense – and why the team would decide he was well worth his new three-year contract extension through 2014 – it came in the team’s 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last Nov. 28.
For while his 10-yard fourth-down touchdown catch with 56 seconds left did not win the game – it tied it, setting the stage for Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal 47 seconds later – it showed to everyone what quarterback Aaron Rodgers already knew about him. It also put on display one of the qualities Rodgers likes best about him.
“What he really does best is, he’s an expert of our offense on paper. But he’s also an expert of how I like to tweak plays to make them to plan for the unexpected,” Rodgers said Wednesday, as the Packers (4-0) prepared to return to Atlanta to face the Falcons (2-2) on Sunday Night Football. “He’s incredible at second-reaction plays. Not to mention he’s deceptively fast.”
What Nelson no longer is, however, is deceptively good. He enters Sunday night’s game having caught 15 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns in four games -- including a career-long 84-yard touchdown from Rodgers at Carolina in Week 2 and a 50-yard TD from Rodgers in last week’s win over the Denver Broncos.
As it turns out, the extension Nelson signed on Saturday – a four-year deal that, according to a league source with access to contract information, is worth a total of $13.2 million (including his $600,000 base salary for 2011) and contains $12.5 million in new money – was in the works when the regular season began, so his fast start had nothing to do with it.
Instead, the deal – with a $3.5 million signing bonus, a $1.7 million roster bonus for next year and base salaries of $1 million in 2012, $2.7 million in 2013 and $2.55 million in 2014 – is the result of Nelson’s consistent development since entering the league as a 2008 second-round pick from Kansas State.
After catching 33 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, Nelson’s numbers dipped slightly in his second season, when he had 22 catches for 320 yards and two TDs. But last season, he not only set career highs in the regular season with 45 receptions for 582 yards and two TDs, he also had a monster game in a must-win game against the New York Giants (four catches, 124 yards, including an 80-yard TD) and caught 21 passes for 286 yards and a pair of TDs in the postseason, including his nine receptions for 140 yards and a TD in Super Bowl XLV.
“I think I’ve developed,” Nelson said Wednesday. “I’m getting comfortable with Aaron, Aaron’s getting comfortable with me, and the coaches as well. There’s that trust factor that has to go along with it. I’ve always said it’s one thing to know the playbook, but it’s another to know exactly what to do.
"It's just a comfort level of a lot less thinking about things that you don't need to think about. I mean, instead of thinking about what route I have, I'm thinking about how I'm going to run the route, what Aaron wants from the film study, what we discussed. It allows you to play fast."
And that’s what was evident on the aforementioned touchdown against the Falcons 11 months ago. Trailing 17-10 and facing fourth-and-goal from the 5, the Packers had just been pushed back 5 yards by a Bryan Bulaga false start. Now facing fourth-and-goal from the 10, coach Mike McCarthy sent out his “Big Five” group. With Rodgers in a shotgun set in an empty backfield, lining up James Jones wide and Nelson in the slot with Greg Jenning in between them on the left, and Donald Driver in the slot and Brett Swain wide on the right.
The Falcons sent a three-man rush and dropped eight defenders into coverage, and after Nelson ran straight up the field and turned around, he realized Rodgers had no one open. Rodgers bought time by shuffling to his left, and Nelson ran across the back of the end zone toward the back left pylon. Nelson put his right arm up as he gained separation from safety Thomas DeCoud, and Rodgers unleashed a fastball that Nelson snared on the sideline for the touchdown, capping a 16-play, 90-yard drive. Mason Crosby’s extra point then tied the game.
“I think that (play) goes to show what I've been saying about being on the same page with Aaron,” Nelson explained. “It was a scramble drill, and that's how detailed he wants to be. So when he starts scrambling in the red zone, we have certain spots, depending on where you line up, where he wants you. He wants you front pylon, back pylon, middle, wherever.
“Instead of running my route and standing there, like, 'This was my job, I did what I'm supposed to do,' it was, ‘I did what he wants.’ It's one thing to run the play but you've got to do what number 12 wants because he's the quarterback. And if you want the ball, you'd better be in the right spot."
Since then, Nelson has been in the right spot a lot – and he firmly believes Green Bay is the right spot for him. He easily could have played out his rookie contract and explored the unrestricted free agent market after the season and likely made more money – and perhaps gotten more passes thrown his direction in a less crowded receiving corps – than he will under his new deal.
Instead, while he joked that wife Emily and son Royal wanted to stay in Green Bay – “My wife loves it here, (and) she probably would have thought about staying and (have) me go play somewhere else,” Nelson said – there was another reason to stay.
“I think some people are in this league to get the money, and are excited about it. For myself, I love winning. I don't know why you would want to leave a team like this, an organization like this,” said Nelson, who, at 26, will get another bite at the free-agency apple before turning 30. “
“We wanted everyone back. Especially after the run we went on last year, we know what we can do. The longer we can stay together as a corps, and just all that time we put in with Aaron, it just continues to build. It’s great to keep the corps intact, and hopefully we can be here for a long time.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.