GREEN BAY, Wis. — There have been several issues with the Packers’ offense this season, but one key aspect that is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook is the impact of being without a healthy Greg Jennings.
Jennings has been plagued by injuries since December 2011, when he suffered a torn MCL in Week 14. In the first game with its Pro Bowl receiver sidelined, Green Bay’s shot at an undefeated season ended at the hands of the 5-8 Kansas City Chiefs. In that loss, the Packers scored only 14 points with a passing attack that — for the first time in 20 games — wasn’t good enough to lead the team to a victory.
It wasn’t all bad for Green Bay’s offense during Jennings’ absence at the end of last season, though. A week after losing their first game in nearly an entire calendar year, Aaron Rodgers looked just fine without Jennings, throwing five touchdown passes and no interceptions in Week 16 against the Chicago Bears. With Rodgers resting for the postseason in Week 17, backup quarterback Matt Flynn certainly didn’t seem to miss Jennings while setting multiple franchise records.
But when a banged-up Jennings returned after five weeks off for the divisional round of the playoffs, he was not his normal self and it showed in the offense’s lack of big-play production. Jennings’ knee injury was not the reason the Packers lost at home to the eventual-champion New York Giants, but looking back now to that game nearly nine months ago, it was an early sign of what Green Bay’s offense is when its star receiver isn’t healthy.
Looking for a lucrative contract extension last offseason, Jennings came up empty. Recently turning 29, Jennings is at the stage of his career where he’ll get only one more giant payday. But the Packers and Jennings never came to an agreement.
As training camp began, Jennings, now in the final year of his deal, couldn’t escape new injuries. First, it was an elbow bruise that kept him out of a few practices. Then, a significant concussion sidelined him for more than two weeks.
Jennings played in the final two preseason games after missing the first two, but he and Rodgers never got the proper time together on the practice field. When most quarterbacks and receivers were busy building chemistry and figuring out precise timing on passing routes, Jennings was stuck at home with the lights off trying to overcome the effects of his concussion. That’s to no fault of Jennings, but it’s been the unfortunate way that things have gone for him recently.
Once the regular season got underway, Jennings was held to five catches for 34 yards in Week 1 against the 49ers. But that wasn’t the worst part of his day, as he had to wave himself off the field on the final drive. It was revealed later that he had suffered a groin injury, and that injury kept Jennings out of Week 2, a game the Packers won despite Rodgers having a very average performance.
Jennings played through pain in Week 3 at Seattle but once again did not put up the type of numbers (six catches for 35 yards) that earned him consecutive Pro Bowl appearances the past two seasons. Against the Saints one week later, Jennings caught one pass, a touchdown, before aggravating his groin injury and sitting for the remainder of the game.
What the Packers have gotten from Jennings since his December 2011 knee injury is not reminiscent of the player who has been one of the league’s best wide receivers since his second NFL season in 2007. Adjustments from play-calling head coach Mike McCarthy will likely be made yet this season, but without Jennings playing as he used to, the offense hasn’t gotten in sync through five games.
Also consider that Jordy Nelson’s breakout season a year ago was as Green Bay’s No. 2 option. Jennings was the feared target, the receiver that most opposing teams stuck their best cornerback on all game. This freed up Nelson to take teams by surprise as he made easy work of inferior cornerbacks. With Jennings either not playing at all or playing injured, Nelson has drawn more attention and has not been as good as a result. After finishing with 1,263 receiving yards last season, at Nelson’s rate of 57.8 yards per game so far in 2012, he would fall more than 300 yards shy of that number were it stretched out the rest of the season.
When a top player goes down, everyone below him has to take one step up the depth chart. Sometimes that can be the difference between a player looking great and looking simply average. Nelson finished ninth in the NFL in receiving yards last season but is currently 34th.
Prior to the season, it was logical to think that the Packers could be just fine if they traded Jennings or let him sign elsewhere in free agency in 2013. After all, with a group of receivers as highly acclaimed as Green Bay’s, it was assumed by many that Nelson could become the No. 1 option and James Jones could be the other starter for a year while Randall Cobb continues to develop in the No. 3 role. Plus, losing Jennings would give tight end Jermichael Finley more opportunities to prove once and for all whether he’s a star or just a complementary piece. But Jennings’ injuries may have proven that the Packers’ receivers were all excelling because of their spot in the rotation.
If Jennings never returns to the player he once was, Green Bay’s offense may continue to be in trouble. If Jennings does come back from these injuries and reclaims his Pro Bowl status but then signs with another team in the offseason, remember just how different the offense flowed when he was healthy and what it looks like at the moment.
There are plenty of problems with the Packers’ offense right now. Had Jennings been healthy all season, it’s possible that Green Bay would still be the 16th-ranked offense and 18th in points as it is currently. But if that’s truly the case and nothing would be any different, it sure does happen to be quite coincidental that many of those offensive issues started when Jennings was carted to the locker room with a knee injury 10 months ago.