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WHEN Jordy Nelson called time on his 11-year NFL career on last week it may not have registered on the radar of the more casual fan. That is no slight. Nelson was far from the flashiest player on the field and could be easily lost when the spotlight in Green Bay was firmly fixed on quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Nelson leaves the league with 8,587 career receiving yards, 72 touchdowns, a Comeback Player of the Year award and collected a Super Bowl ring when the Packers knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011. At the peak of his powers was one of the most dominant receivers in the league. Yet he may be remembered as one of the most underrated pass-catchers of his era.
That triumph over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV was Nelson’s coming out party. The Kansas State product had nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown in the 31-25 victory and then went on to put up 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns in the 2011 season. That year his signal-caller just happened to win his first MVP award while also setting the record for the highest single season passer rating of 122.5.
Nelson’s 2011 season was his first of four campaigns with over 1,200 receiving yards. In three of those he would also have double-digit touchdowns to go along with the impressive yardage.
It also put established Packers veterans on notice. Long-time Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings was let go the next season and Packer great Donald Driver retired. Nelson’s emergence was the perfect counterpoint to two fan favourites leaving in the same offseason.
Detractors may point to Rodgers as the sole reason for Nelson’s success in the league, but that is a myth at best and an outright lie at worst. They made each other better. Since 2014 the tandem rank first among quarterback-pass catcher passer rating with a minimum of 300 attempts. The 121.0 rating Rodgers posted when targeting Nelson tops the 115.0 put up by Tom Brady and recently retired Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans Saints duo Drew Brees and wide receiver Michael Thomas.
Nelson’s speed, crisp route-running and sure hands often went underappreciated due to who was throwing him the ball. In 2014 he logged seven games of over 100 receiving yards. The same amount as Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr and just one fewer than Antonio Brown.
That assessment would soon change when he tore his ACL in 2015 in a pre-season game against the Steelers. The sixth ranked offense in 2014 plummeted to 23rd in 2015 as the Packers passing attack looked distinctly average following the loss of their primary outside receiver.
The burden fell on slot receiver Randall Cobb and then second-year wideout Davante Adams. The feeling at the time was that Adams was positioned to step into the No 1 receiver role after a strong showing in the 2014 playoffs and there was an expectation that Cobb would build on his 1,287-yard season the previous term.
Those expectations went unfulfilled. Adams battled nagging injuries and drops. Cobb failed to get open often enough when teams started rolling their coverage to him. The pair finished with 1,312 yards and seven touchdowns between them and while Green Bay would finish 10-6 and make the playoffs, it was hardly the offensive clinic we had come to expect and much of that was down to Nelson’s absence.
Nelson’s return would also spark the revival of the high-powered Packers attack and in 2016 they finished eighth in total offense and went on another post-season run, though Nelson’s playoffs would be marred by broken ribs in the divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys.
That did not keep him off the field, and although Green Bay were humbled 44-21 by the Atlanta Falcons, Nelson would play in the game with a Kevlar vest protecting his ribs. The act of selflessness moved Rodgers to tears in the post-game press conference.
NFL receiver ranking lists compiled on television and in think pieces seldom had Nelson in the top ten, and hardly ever in the top five. The names of Brown, Jones and Beckham hold cache with their spectacular catches and larger than life personalities. Nelson ranked fourth in receiving yards in 2014 with 1,519 – behind Brown, Demaryius Thomas and Jones – and fifth in 2016 when he would win Comeback Player of the Year. That year he would also lead all wide receivers with the most touchdowns. He found the end zone 14 times. That season he also had five games of over 100 receiving yards. One more than both Brown and Beckham.
The 2016 campaign would represent his final great year as a Packer as his production tailed off in 2017. In the offseason Nelson was unceremoniously cut after ten seasons in Green Bay before a final season with the Oakland Raiders, who cut him halfway through a two-year deal. Nelson announced his retirement two weeks later.
Nelson’s effortless release off the line of scrimmage, speed, reliable hands and fearlessness when snatching balls out of the air in traffic will be fondly remembered by Packers fans even if he is lost to the passage of time and will be little more than another name in other NFL circles.
Largely disrespected for one reason or another that will not bother Nelson who was one of the ultimate team guys in the league. Individual statistics and accolades were never at the forefront.
While it is true that Nelson benefitted greatly from Rodgers, the quarterback also profited enormously from having Nelson as his top receiver for so many years in Green Bay.
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