GREEN BAY – As the final minutes ticked away Monday night, Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson stood on the Green Bay Packers’ sideline, together. The game was a blowout, and both were done for the evening when the conversation turned to wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
A fascinating discussion about perception and race ensued. (The score was 45-7, after all.)
“I was talking to ‘Wood’ in the fourth quarter and he said, ‘When you see Jordy out there, you think, “Oh well, he’s a white wide receiver. He won’t be very athletic.” But Jordy sort of breaks all those stereotypes,’” Rodgers recounted during his weekly radio show on ESPNMilwaukee and ESPNMadison this week. “I am not sure why he keeps sneaking up on guys.”
Greg Jennings, Nelson’s fellow wide receiver and friend, knows exactly why Nelson keeps sneaking up on opponents: He’s white.
“They underestimate him. And honestly, he uses that to his advantage,” Jennings said Wednesday afternoon. “Seriously … a lot of it has to do with the fact that guys look at him and say, ‘OK, he’s the white guy, he can’t be that good.’ Well, he is that good, he’s proven to be that good and it’s because of the work and the time that he’s put in – not only on the field but in his preparation off the field.”
Nelson enters Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field having caught 34 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. He ranks second on the team in receptions and yardage to Jennings (51 catches, 755 yards) and the two are tied for the team lead in touchdown catches. In the NFL, Nelson ranks tied for 44th in catches but 15th in yardage and tied for first with Carolina’s Steve Smith in yards per reception (18.6) among receivers with at least 20 receptions.
Of the top 15 pass-catchers in the yardage ranking, only one of the other wide receivers -- New England’s Wes Welker, the NFL leader in receptions (72) and yards (1,006) -- is white. (The Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, who has 52 catches and 709 yards, is a tight end.)
“I told you not to let the secret out,” Nelson said with a laugh.
The trouble with the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson is that he defies easy characterization. A high-school quarterback who went to Kansas State as a walk-on and was immediately converted to safety, he has only played receiver for seven years – his final three with the Wildcats, and now he’s in his fourth NFL season – and is just coming into his own at the position.
Already this season, Nelson caught touchdowns of 50, 84 and 93 yards, plus a 64-yard catch against San Diego two weeks ago. (The 93- and 84-yarder give him two of the five longest receptions in the NFL this year.) He’s shown he can go deep or turn a relatively short pass into a big gain (the 93-yarder only traveled 25 yards in the air) and also exhibits strength and power, as he did on a 17-yard touchdown against the Vikings Monday night, when the final 12 yards came after he stiff-armed Minnesota’s Cedric Griffin.
He also has a beautiful football mind, which he showed on his other touchdown, when he and Rodgers were on the same wavelength on a broken play that turned into a 4-yard TD.
“(There’s) just a lot of comfort and confidence when I’m throwing him the football,” Rodgers explained. “I really feel like Jordy sees the game like a quarterback does, which is directly related to the number of conversations we have had in meetings or after meetings. I enjoy the way that he asks questions, and I think there is a lot to say about the way that you ask questions – what types of questions you are asking, the whys, the fine details – because that goes a long way.
“Especially in crunch time, if we’ve talked about something, the ability to recall that conversation and immediately make the correct reaction really goes a long way to me having confidence in him and ultimately me getting him the football. He does a great job adjusting to me and my movements outside the pocket to finding those open zones. He obviously has great hands. I think his speed is underrated and underestimated at times by defenders, But you’ve (also) got to look at his power, as was evidenced with that stiff-arm he had.”
But even Rodgers, a football history buff, struggled to avoid the white-receiver stereotype when asked who Nelson reminds him of.
“Two guys come to mind. Joe Jurevicius, who was big body with good hands and body control, and then Ed McCaffrey who played for the Broncos for a long time,” Rodgers replied. “I think he is faster than both of those guys though. He is faster and more athletic. He can make guys miss in the open field.”
The 6-5, 230-pound Jurevicius played 10 NFL seasons with four different teams, with his best season coming in 2005 when he caught 55 passes for 694 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Seattle Seahawks. The 6-5, 215-pound McCaffrey played 13 seasons, mostly with the Denver Broncos, posting three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 1998 through 2000. The 2000 season was his best, when he caught 101 passes for 1,317 yards and nine TDs.
Told of the comparison, Jennings shook his head.
“No. He’s better than Joe Jurevicius; he’s better than Ed McCaffrey. No disrespect to those guys,” Jennings said. “It’s easy for someone to say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s like one of those other white receivers.’ He’s not. I’m sorry, he’s not. He knows how I feel about it. Maybe I’m a little biased because he is a teammate, but from watching him Day 1 to right now, (he’s a) totally different player. Like, a complete 180.
“He’s kind of progressed and now it’s just like, ‘Boom! Pop on the scene, this is what I can offer.’ Given more opportunities, he’s going to make plays. Period. Bottom line. That’s the standard he holds himself to, that’s the standard we hold one another to, and he’s fulfilling that right now.”
For his part, Nelson doesn’t compare himself to anyone (“I wasn’t trying to emulate my game after anyone because I didn’t play the position”) but does acknowledge that the white-receiver stereotyping does happen.
“Honestly, I think it is (a factor). As receivers, we’ve talked about it,” Nelson said. “I know (Packers cornerbacks coach) Joe Whitt tells me all the time, when all the rookies come in, he gives them the heads-up: ‘Don’t let him fool ya.’ That’s fine with me.
“(But) I don’t really care. I like what (opposing cornerbacks) are doing, whatever it is.”
Meanwhile, Nelson is simply enjoying the ride. A second-round pick in 2008, he and James Jones shared the No. 3 wide receiver job the past three years behind Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, but this season, there’s no question that he’s the team’s No. 2 wideout, even though he’s technically only started four games.
According to statistics compiled by ProFootballFocus.com, Nelson has played 315 snaps so far this season, second to Jennings (471) and ahead of Driver (282), Jones (258) and rookie Randall Cobb (125) in the rotation. He needs 12 catches in the final seven games to surpass his career high of 45 receptions set last season, and his yardage and touchdown totals are already career bests. He had a monster game in the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV victory in February (nine receptions, 140 yards, one TD) and the Packers rewarded him with a three-year, $13.35 million contract extension on Oct. 1.
“I honestly don’t believe anything that’s going on right now,” Nelson said earnestly. “It’s, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just naïve or whatever, but ever since the playoff run and the situation (this season), it’s just been unreal. I think it always will be until I’m done.”
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.