GRAND CHUTE, Wis. — There is no question that the Green Bay Packers have been in a very difficult position this offseason with veteran wide receiver Donald Driver.
While Driver gained a tremendous level of celebrity outside of football with his victorious run on “Dancing with the Stars,” the Packers faced a decision about what to do with the 37-year-old’s contract, and, ultimately, his future with the franchise for which he owns the all-time receiving records.
Driver was originally due $5 million for the 2012 season, a price far too steep for general manager Ted Thompson to pay the team’s No. 4 receiver.
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With an incredibly deep group of receivers on the roster, led by Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, Driver seemed very expendable. A roster spot for Driver also makes it more difficult for up-and-coming wideouts Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel — both of whom spent last season on the practice squad — to stick around as Packers. After all, in 2011, both Gurley and Borel were offered active-roster contracts with other teams, offers that were declined with hopes of soon being part of Green Bay’s active roster.
But, given what Thompson and the Packers went through with the end of Brett Favre’s career in Green Bay, it’s understandable why the organization didn’t want to jettison its most popular player this summer.
Though it may seem unbelievable that Driver could even potentially be more popular than NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, the evidence was on display Sunday afternoon. Driver, hosting his fifth-annual team softball game, was greeted by the sold-out crowd with ovations and cheers that trounced what Rodgers received.
Signs all throughout the crowd were not celebrating Rodgers’ MVP trophy, they were for Driver’s “Dancing with the Stars” mirror ball trophy. A multitude of fans were holding up “10, 10, 10” signs, those being the scores that Driver received from the judges in his final dancing performance.
When Rodgers hit the first of his two home runs in the game — after calling his shot to left field — sure, the crowd was excited. But when Driver came out to pitch, the stadium was raucous.
So, is it possible that Thompson and the Packers’ front office actually paid attention to Driver’s social status when making the football decision to sign him to a restructured one-year contract earlier this week? Rodgers thinks so.
“It’s got to,” Rodgers said when asked that exact question after the game. “You hear the response today. I think him winning the mirror ball was directly related to the kind of voting the state of Wisconsin did for him. He’s been a Packer for life and it’s going to be nice to be able to see him finish his career in Green Bay, and hopefully send him off the right way.”
Driver was joined at the charity softball game by his dance partner, Peta Murgatroyd, and the two dancing champions had the attention of the 8,000 fans in attendance with every move they made together.
Simply put, the Packers releasing Driver would have been a public relations disaster on par with — or even exceeding — what happened with the team and Favre in 2008.
Driver, however, refused to believe that his new-found popularity in mainstream society had anything to do with the team’s decision.
“So you don’t think I can play football?” Driver fired back at a reporter when asked about that possibility. “I just feel like I can still play at a high level. I’ve proven that. I think the playoff game (three catches for 45 yards with one touchdown in the loss to the New York Giants) proved it as well.
“I think one thing about it is, you’ve got to sometimes put the age out of it and knowing that a guy is still productive. Sometimes in the National Football League, that’s what it comes down to — age, instead of how you perform. And you’ve got guys who are up in age that are still performing at a high level. And I think I can do the same thing.”
Statistically, Driver’s production has fallen off greatly in recent years. From 2004-2009, Driver had five consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus yards. Last season, Driver had just 445 total receiving yards.
“The good thing I love about it is, it’s not all dependent on me anymore,” Driver said regarding the team’s offense. “I think the first eight, nine years of my career, it was all dependent on me making plays and winning games. Now, we’ve got a group of receivers who are unbelievable. Now, the ball is spread around, and I may not get 60, 70 catches, and I’m OK with that.”
Throughout the offseason, when Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy were asked about Driver’s status with the team, they were non-committal, dancing around the questions with as much grace as Driver was showing every week on television. If they were certain that Driver would return to the Packers for a 14th season, they weren’t saying it publicly.
But after listening to the crowd’s loving reaction for Driver’s simple underhand softball pitches on Sunday, any move other than bringing him back could have gotten ugly with one of the sports world’s most dedicated fan bases.
“I would’ve never expected this in a million years,” Driver said. “When I walked in here in 1999, I would’ve never expected to have the fan base that I have now. I think you treat people like you want to be treated. I don’t put myself on a pedestal, they do. And when they put me on that pedestal, I bring myself back down to earth, knowing I’m just a normal human being. I think now they see that.
“I think not just the Packers fans see that and Packer Nation sees that, but the world sees that now, that I am a good guy, a great father, a great Christian man and a great husband. And to me, that’s what I wanted to show the world.”
Earlier in the week, when Driver reported to Green Bay for the second week of the Packers’ offseason training activities with his restructured contract completed, his confidence as a football player had not been lost.
“I’m still the starter until they tell me I’m not,” Driver said. “They haven’t told me I’m not the starter. I’m still the guy until they tell me otherwise. I don’t think anything changed on that part of it.”
Last season, Driver was targeted by Rodgers with 56 passes, the fourth most on the team, trailing Jennings, Nelson and tight end Jermichael Finley. That was also only one more target than wide receiver James Jones. Driver finished fifth on the team in receptions with 37 behind all four of those players.
But, it appears, unless Driver is injured between now and the start of training camp, the Packers’ arguably most popular player will get at least one more season in Green Bay. Whether he can thank his dancing skills for that remains up for debate.