Packers aim for a cast of thousands
Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson didn’t think James Jones was crazy, they just weren’t sure why he had to predict during the offseason that the Green Bay Packers would have three 1,000-yard receivers this year.
“Brilliant man, brilliant man,” Nelson said with a smile this week.
And while Jones acknowledged that extrapolating numbers after two games is foolhardy, he also wanted to make it clear that his prediction looks pretty darn good as the Packers’ top three wide receivers prepare for Sunday’s game at Cincinnati.
“I was dead serious,” Jones said of he, Nelson and Cobb all being on pace to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this season. “I knew if all three of us could stay healthy and the quarterback we’ve got throwing the ball, three 1,000-yard receivers can happen.”
Entering Sunday, Cobb leads the Packers in receiving with 16 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns, while Nelson has 10 receptions for 196 yards and three TDs. Jones, who didn’t have a reception in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener, set career highs against Washington last week, catching 11 passes for 178 yards.
In addition, tight end Jermichael Finley has 11 receptions for 121 yards and two TDs.
“I’m only going to stick with three right now, and if J-Mike ends up beating one of us out for 1,000 yards, I still told y’all we’d have three (with) 1,000 yards,” Jones said with a laugh.
In NFL history, only five teams have had three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season: The 2008 Arizona Cardinals (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston); the 2004 Indianapolis Colts (Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokley, Reggie Wayne); the 1995 Atlanta Falcons (Bert Emanuel, Eric Metcalf, Terance Mathis); the 1989 Washington Redskins (Gary Clark, Art Monk, Ricky Sanders); and the 1980 San Diego Chargers (John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow).
Of the Packers’ candidates, only Nelson, with 1,263 yards in 2011, has had a 1,000-yard season before. Cobb, now in his third season, had 954 yards last year but missed the regular-season finale at Minnesota with an ankle injury. Jones had a career-high 784 yards last year.
“It’s only two games, but talent-wise, I think there is three 1,000-yard receivers,” Nelson said. “I’ve (done) it, Randall would have had it last year if he would have been able to play in the last game, and James has come close (even though he’s) been in and out of the lineup just with the depth. If we all have more opportunities like we’re getting this year, I think it’s possible.”
While the projections are unrealistic for Cobb (128 receptions, 1,888 yards), Nelson (80 receptions, 1,568 yards), Jones (88 receptions, 1,424 yards) and Finley (88 receptions, 968 yards), the fact that those four players have all but 82 of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ league-leading 813 passing yards is also a function of a shift in coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive philosophy
Not only did veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings leave to join the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent and franchise all-time leading receiver Donald Driver retire after 14 seasons, making it more important that Cobb, Nelson and Jones stay on the field, but McCarthy is no longer using as many varied personnel groupings as he did in his earlier years as coach.
Rather, the eighth-year head coach has adopted an up-tempo, no-huddle approach where substitutions are kept to a minimum and the emphasis is on running plays quickly.
Previously, it was standard operating procedure under McCarthy for the Packers to line up one play with three receivers, a tight end and one back on one play, then two receivers, two tight ends and a back on the next, then three tight ends and two backs on the next, then with five wide receivers and an empty backfield on the next.
Those days are gone.
“It’s two different worlds, two different approaches. And there’s things you can accomplish staying in one personnel (group) and (using) the experience of your quarterback and players,” McCarthy explained this week. “It’s just two different philosophies. They both work. I’m fortunate to be a part of both of them.
“There’s two approaches to the game of football. People feel you should slow the game down and try to get to as minimum amount of plays as possible and put it on your defense and special teams and try to win it with discipline in the end. Then there’s another approach (where) you try to play as fast as you can, get as many punches as possible. I think it’s obvious what approach we believe in.”
According to the NFL’s official statistics, of the Packers 128 offensive plays through two games, a whopping 101 have come with the personnel grouping of Jones, Nelson and Cobb and one tight end and one running back on the field.
Of those, 37 plays have featured Cobb, Nelson, Jones, Finley and James Starks; 35 have featured Cobb, Nelson, Jones, Finley and Eddie Lacy; 18 have utilized Cobb, Nelson, Jones, Andrew Quarless and Starks; nine have used Cobb, Nelson, Jones, Finley and John Kuhn; and two have been with Cobb, Nelson, Jones, Quarless and Lacy.
An additional four snaps have been played with those three wide receivers along with Finley and Quarless, and another snap was played with Cobb, Nelson, Jones, Starks and Kuhn.
Nelson, Cobb and Jones have also played three additional snaps together in four-receiver, one-tight end sets. Plays nullified by penalties are excluded from the totals.
That means that Cobb, Nelson and Jones have been on the field together for 109 of the teams 128 plays. The team’s fourth and fifth receivers, Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross, have played a combined four snaps on offense in two games.
In the opener at San Francisco, both Jones and Nelson played every one of the Packers’ 62 offensive snaps (which includes plays wiped out by penalties) while Cobb, who also plays on special teams, played 53. Against Washington, Jones played 69 of 72 snaps, Nelson 68 and Cobb 64. Although to a man, Cobb, Nelson and Jones said they’re not worried about wearing down and instead are excited about being on the field so much.
“Out of all the years I’ve been here, we’ve had a wide receiver rotation and this is the only year that me, Jordy and Randall is the three, and we’re going to be on the field all the time, basically,” said Jones, who is now in his seventh season. “We may rotate and switch positions or something like that, but we’re going to be on the field all the time, and I believe once we get the ball in our hands we can make that happen.”
In addition, the Packers have used 19 unique offensive lineups so far this season. Only Denver (13), Buffalo (18) and Tampa Bay (18) have used fewer. While lineup combinations also take into account roster changes and injuries, the fact that the Packers are near the bottom of that list is significant.
Since Rodgers took over had 345 different offensive personnel combinations in 2007 (second in the NFL), 350 in 2008 (fourth), 362 in 2009 (first), 334 in 2010 (fourth) and 439 (first) in 2011. Last year, when the no-huddle offense became a staple, the Packers used only 303 lineups, which was sixth in the league but appreciably down despite a rash of injuries.
“As a receiver, you get into the flow of the game,” Nelson said. “When we had all the depth here with Greg and Drive, you’d go in for one possession, out one possession, in one. So, you never got in the rhythm.
“It’s good to be out there getting comfortable. You get used to the DB you’re going (against). That’s one thing about the no-huddle. We stay on our side of the ball so you’re constantly going against the same guy. We like it and it allows Aaron to have a lot of freedom to make sure that we’re in a good play every time and allows us more opportunities to make plays.”
And, rack up more yards.
“That’s a high bar, that’s a pretty high bar there,” Rodgers said of three 1,000-yard receivers. “(But) I think it’s possible. We have some great weapons, we’ve been throwing it around a lot the first two games. It just depends on how teams are going to play us. Obviously we’ve got to complement our passing game with our running game – we had a 100-yard rusher (last week), which was exciting for everybody – and we need to have that balance. If you have that balance, you’re going to have the opportunity to spread it around a little bit.
“I told the guys, I reminded them, ‘I’m going to go through my progressions and I’m going to throw to the open guy and the high-percentage throw.’ Some games, it might be a few targets and some games it could be 15. But to those guys credit, they run their routes to win all the time and they’re incredible after the catch. It’s my job to put the ball in the proper number and the proper spot and allow them to make some plays after the catch. If it shakes down that they’re (all) around 1,000 at the end of the year, then so be it.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.