GREEN BAY – Donald Driver doesn’t know how or when his Green Bay Packers career will end – he’s certain it won’t be this year – but the veteran wide receiver knows this much: He won’t leave the way his friend and former quarterback Brett Favre departed.
“I don’t want that,” Driver said, recalling how the future Pro Football Hall of Famer was traded to the New York Jets in August 2008, spent the past two seasons with the rival Minnesota Vikings and remains estranged from the franchise he once personified. “For me, just being around the people upstairs, from (former general manager and team president) Ron Wolf and Bob Harlan to now (current president and GM) Mark Murphy and Ted (Thompson), do I think it’ll ever get to that point? No. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’m so bitter and I’m so upset at those guys. I think I can walk away, give those guys a big hug and say, ‘Hey, I appreciate it,’ and retire and put the cleats on the shelf and have some fun.
“The humble guy that walked in here in ’99, laughing and joking with a smile on his face and not mad at the world for anything, that’s the same way I want to go out. I want to be the same, happy-go-lucky person. I don’t want any pressure on me where I’ve got to be mad when I walk away, where I go, ‘I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have done that.’ I want to walk away happy knowing I’ve done everything possible.”
From the moment Driver, who turned 36 just four days before the team’s Super Bowl XLV victory, arrived in Green Bay as a little-known seventh-round pick from Alcorn State who made an instant impression from the first days of coach Ray Rhodes’ first – and only – training camp.
Now, 12 years later, Driver enters the 2011 season just 42 yards away from breaking Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton's franchise record for career receiving yards (9,656), having already claimed ownership of the team career reception record last year (698). And while he’s not talking retirement – his current contract, which was extended last summer, runs through 2012, and his stated goal is to play to age 40 – there is reason to wonder what the future holds for him in Green Bay.
Driver had his team-record streak of 133 consecutive games with at least one reception snapped last season, and with 51 catches for 565 yards and four touchdowns, he also saw his streak of six straight 1,000-yard seasons end. His final numbers were his lowest since he caught 13 passes for 167 yards in 2001 (although similar to his 2003 numbers of 52 catches for 621 yards and two TDs). He missed one game and went reception-less in two others around midseason, when he was nagged by a quadriceps injury. And he was unable to finish Super Bowl XLV, knocked out with a high ankle sprain after catching two passes for 28 yards during the first half.
In addition, according to STATS LLC, Driver’s yards-after-the-catch numbers were way down last season (190 yards, the fewest among the Packers’ top four receivers) and he was credited with seven regular-season dropped passes, the most on the team.
“He’s gotten the great production as much on his competitiveness (as anything),” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said Wednesday. “I haven’t noticed a huge decline, like, ‘Wow, he can’t run that route any more, we’ve got to get him out of there.’ I think hopefully he can still make a great contribution to the ballclub.”
Asked how a coach can tell if a receiver’s skills are eroding, Philbin replied, “One way (is), you’re always looking for guys that can separate against man coverage and beat you. Football, at some point in time, especially on third down, comes to a one-on-one matchup. … I would say that might be one of the areas you’d look at.”
The drop in Driver’s YAC yardage is particularly telling, and could be a foreboding sign of decline. In 2007, Driver had a team-best 438 yards after the catch. He had 365 yards in 2008 and 391 in 2009 before the drop-off last year. Even if you allow for the fact that his total yardage dropped significantly, his yards-after-the-catch average per catch dropped even more precipitously: From 5.3 in ’07, 4.9 in ’08 and 5.6 in ’09 to just 3.7 last year. In addition, 39 of his YAC yards came on his most memorable play of the year: A 61-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 5, when he broke four tackles and carried two 49ers defenders into the end zone with him at the end.
Signed through 2012, with a $5.0 million salary cap number for this season. Driver has always thrived on the opinions of naysayers and doubters, even when he essentially had to manufacture such slights. From 2004 through ’09, Driver averaged 81.3 receptions for 1,140.8 yards and 5.8 touchdowns per year in that six-year span, but now that he’s coming off a down year, he won’t need to conjure up such motivation.
“That’s been my motivation throughout my whole life – to prove people wrong, (to prove) that I can do it,” Driver said. “I said I want to play until I’m 40. Whether that day comes or not, I’m not … I’m willing to know when it’s over, it’s over. For me, it’s not over. It’s been a proven fact that I’m still playing at a high level. I’m still competing at a high level. But people are going to continue saying, ‘At 36, he’s going to hit the wall.’”
If there’s one type of player Thompson has shown an unwillingness to keep, it’s an over-30 player with injuries. Another veteran and fan favorite, 34-year-old right tackle Mark Tauscher, was released at the start of training camp, along with 30-year-old inside linebacker Nick Barnett, who finished two of the last three seasons on injured reserve. Another, 30-year-old defensive end Cullen Jenkins, was allowed to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles even though the Packers easily could have afforded his deal. Jenkins has missed 17 of a possible 48 regular-season games over the past three seasons because of various injuries.
Thompson has also shown that he’d rather get rid of a player a year too early (Darren Sharper, Favre) than a year too late.
Then there’s the rest of the depth chart. Greg Jennings is indisputably the team’s No. 1 receiver now, and Jordy Nelson and James Jones, who battled over the No. 3 spot behind Driver last year, are both capable of passing him. Rookie second-round pick Randall Cobb looked fantastic working from the slot – Driver’s almost exclusive domain for years – in the preseason opener at Cleveland last week and has proven to be a quick learner of the Packers’ complex offense, meaning he’ll likely be in the mix. Several young and unknown receivers – Chastin West, Tori Gurley, Diondre Borel – have shown promise, and last year’s No. 5, Brett Swain, is currently sidelined by a hamstring injury but remains in contention for a roster spot as well.
Asked if he would defer to one of those other receivers to play more snaps than him if he felt the others gave the team the best chance to win, Driver replied, “I’m one of those unselfish guys. I’ve always been that way and that’ll never change. I never cared who gets the ball, as long as we win the game, that’s all that matters to me. (Last) year, everyone was like, ‘If you don’t get your 1,000-yard season, where are you going to be at?’ I don’t care. I won the Super Bowl. I have that title, I have that ring. I’m OK with that.
“If it got to that point, if they made a decision to say, ‘Hey, Donald, we’re not going to start you,’ I’m OK with it. It’s not going to be the first time I haven’t started a game, it won’t be my last. So I think you just have to go out there and when the ball comes to you, you have to make the best of it. To me, I’m fine with that.
“(But) I’m still the starter. That hasn’t changed. Not at all. Don’t get it twisted. I’ll still start come Sunday. That’s never going to change.”
During the course of a 15-minute interview in the locker room earlier this week, Driver contradicted himself several times. First he said he used the whispers of doubt about him as motivation; then he said he didn’t care. First he said he would never play for another team; then he walked that back and talked about how “business” could dictate exactly that.
“Sometimes it comes down to a business situation. And if it came down to business, I’m hoping I can walk upstairs and sit down with those guys and say, ‘Look, what aer you guys planning on doing?’” Driver said. “If they say, ‘Donald, we’re going a different route,’ I respect that. I can’t do anything about it. But if I still feel like I’m playing at a high level, then maybe I can go somewhere else and play. Do I want to do that? No. But it’s a business decision, and I’m going to continue playing if I still feel l can play.
“I think the Packers will give me an opportunity to retire here. I don’t think they would want me to leave and go anywhere else.”
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.