GREEN BAY – If Donald Driver learned anything from the drama of the summer of 2008, it is this: No one, absolutely no one, is guaranteed the opportunity to walk away on their own terms. Not even Green Bay Packers legends.
Sunday’s 37-20 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants could turn out to be the veteran wideout’s final game in a Green Bay uniform. But the team’s all-time leading receiver and face-of-the-franchise player insisted Monday that it won’t be his final NFL game.
“I think you get to a point where you have to prepare yourself for this situation,” the Packers veteran wide receiver said Monday, as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers. “You never think it will come. I think one guy played here a long time, he didn't expect that to come either, but it came. And for him, it's a little bitter. For me, I think I prepared myself for it that it won't be bitter at all. It’s business, and I have to do what I have to do."
But unlike ex-Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who retired in March of 2008 before reconsidering a few months later and wound up being traded to the New York Jets, Driver made it clear he won’t be retiring. If the Packers don’t want him back in 2012, they’ll have to release him.
“If the Packers don’t want me, I’ve got to go somewhere else and play. I don’t have a choice,” Driver said. “I’m not ready to hang the cleats up.”
Driver is under contract for the 2012 season, with a $2.2 million roster bonus due in March, a $200,000 workout bonus and a $2.6 million base salary. As a vested veteran, he would be guaranteed the full salary if he is on the roster on opening day.
“I don't know if (the Favre situation) prepared me. I knew it would come to an end someday, so I (had) to prepare myself for it, regardless of the situation,” said Driver, who first joined the Packers as an unknown seventh-round draft pick from Alcorn State in 1999.
“It's not over yet, I hope, but if it is ... This is a business, and if they decide to go a different route with the young players, then I've got to go do what I want to do. And that means either talk to my wife, sit down and make a decision on if I'm going to go somewhere else and play, or do I put the cleats up? Right now, I'm not ready to put the cleats up, so I guess I'll be going somewhere else to play."
After catching three passes – all three thrown his direction – for 45 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the Giants, Driver showed that he still has something left. But it’s not as simple as whether or not Driver, who’ll turn 37 on Feb. 2, can still play.
“I’ve got plenty (left). The thing is, it’s not up to me. The Packers have to make that decision,” Driver said. “If they decide to keep me, then I’ll come back. If not, I guess I’ve got to go somewhere else play. But that’s always been my goal, to retire here. It’s going to be up them to make that decision.
With Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson clearly the Packers’ top two receivers, Driver shared time with James Jones and rookie Randall Cobb this season. He finished the regular season having caught 37 passes for 445 yards and six touchdowns, ranking him fifth on the team in both receptions and yardage.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Jennings, who missed the final three regular-season games with a knee injury suffered on Dec. 11, led the Packers wide receivers with 713 snaps played in 2011. Nelson was next at 699, followed by Driver at 562, Jones at 557 and Cobb at 308.
Jennings also led the team in targets with 101, followed by Nelson with 96, tight end Jermichael Finley with 93, Driver with 56, Jones with 55 and Cobb with 31.
“I think you guys (saw) how I played this year. I haven't lost a step on anyone. I think it's just going out there and getting opportunities,” Driver said. “You get your opportunities, you make the best of them. My opportunities came this year, I made the best of them. Whenever they came I did what I had to do. Whatever the road goes for me, I'm willing to follow it."
The Packers also upped the salaries of two of their practice-squad wide receivers – Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel – to keep them on the practice squad when Gurley (Minnesota) and Borel (Tampa Bay) were offered roster spots on other teams’ 53-man rosters.
“It’s one of those things where, you sacrifice to be a team player. I’ve learned that here. Be selfless, because everyone has done it before me,” Gurley said Monday. “I just want an opportunity to play.”
If Driver does not return, he would finish his 13-year Packers career with 735 receptions for 10,060 yards and 59 touchdowns in regular-season play and 49 catches for 667 yards and three TDs in postseason play. He ranks 32nd all-time in the NFL in career receptions and tied for 35th all-time with Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe in career receiving yardage. He is tied for 71st all-time in career TD catches.
Asked how long he would like to play, Driver said he hoped to play until age 40. He later joked that he’s in good enough shape to play until he’s 45. Jones said he wants his friend and mentor to play forever.
“I don’t know about forever, but I’ve always said I wanted to play until I’m 40,” Driver said. “My goal is just to continue to play. I feel like I played at a high level this year, didn’t get the opportunities that I always wanted, but I made the best of my opportunities. I love those guys to death, and if I get an opportunity to come back and play, I will. If not, I’ll go somewhere else and play, I’ll see them down the road.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.