A few years ago, a buddy of mine and I were out at a townie bar in small-town Minnesota. He’s a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so our conversations often come back to football and our shared disdain of the Minnesota Vikings. It’s really just a casualty of living in a different state than the football team you support, though I’d rather be here talking smack about the Vikings than be caught dead in a state that willingly elected Scott Walker to govern it for eight years.
One of our favorite pastimes in these conversations is to reminisce about our favorite players. Steelers fans, in my experience, tend to gravitate to the same players they have fond memories about: Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Antwaan Randle-El, James Harrison, etc. The modern-era glory days of that franchise were rich with fun players and storylines.
The same could be said about the Aaron Rodgers-era Green Bay Packers teams. It has been quite fun to track this team’s successes over the last decade. When I think about favorite players (beyond the obvious choice in Rodgers), my mind always goes to Desmond Bishop, James Starks, Jermichael Finley, and B.J. Raji, to name a few. Those dudes were the real deal.
However, not long after those guys, I think of Jordy Nelson. I think about the end of his career in Green Bay that never was.
His departure from the franchise was unceremonious, to put it lightly. After a forgettable 2017 season that saw an injured Rodgers and the ghost of Brett Hundley throw wounded ducks to Nelson all year, newly-appointed general manager Brian Gutekunst let Nelson walk for free. Nelson had come off his lowest receiving yardage total since the 2010 season, though his status as a franchise pillar was no match for the shrewd transactionary guillotine of Gutekunst.
It is well-documented that this move, along with a slew of other releases, have played a large role in Rodgers’ current dissatisfaction with Green Bay. His idea of the direction the franchise is going and how the front office treats the “people” within the organization was likely kicked off by the release of his trustworthy teammate in Nelson. As the Packers scramble to find ways to make moves that will make Rodgers happy, I can’t help but ask one simple question:
What if Jordy Nelson stayed?
Would the answer to all of the current problems with the Packers really be that simple? It’s not necessarily unrealistic to think that re-signing Jordy would have provided a band-aid for the wide receiver position for a few years. If he had remained on the team, it would also have delayed the severing of ties between Rodgers and Gutekunst.
Let’s take a look at the impact that Nelson would have had on Green Bay had he not ventured off to Oakland for the 2018 season.
Nelson’s last season in Lambeau was not great. He only totaled 482 receiving yards in a year that saw the Packers go 7-9 and miss the playoffs. Nelson also turned 32 that year. From an outside perspective, it would make sense to let an aging skill position player leave in the interest of bringing in younger, more effective talent.
Nelson moved on from Green Bay to play one season with the Oakland Raiders in 2018. He put up fair numbers as Oakland’s leading wide receiver that year: 63 receptions for 739 yards and 3 touchdowns. Jared Cook led that team in receiving yardage as a tight end. As the Raiders eventually moved on from talented wide receiver Amari Cooper that year, Nelson provided stability for quarterback Derek Carr in what would be his first season throwing for over 4000 yards.
Rodgers threw for almost 4500 yards, 25 TDs, and only two picks in 2018, and the Packers went 6-9-1. Davante Adams had a breakout year with 1386 receiving yards, but outside of Adams there were little to no receiving threats. The highest yardage total behind Adams was the lumbering cadaver of Jimmy Graham who inexplicably totaled 636 yards and a whopping two TDs on the season.
Fans who remember watching that season know that receivers had a problem getting separation all year. Cobb was a shell of his former self as he battled through injury and age, and the young crop of receivers in Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and Geronimo Allison had not yet reached a point of reliable production for the veteran quarterback. For all intents and purposes, this season was a mess.
If Nelson were to have stuck around, he would have provided a reliable No. 2 option behind Adams. Even in his age-33 season, it is reasonable to believe he could have repeated or exceeded his Oakland receiving totals had he stayed in Green Bay.
Rodgers threw for approximately 9.7% more yards than Carr during the 2018 season. He also accounted for 31% more touchdowns. If we apply that mark-up in quarterback play to Nelson’s 2018 totals with Oakland, his 2018 season in Green Bay would have looked like this: 810 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
These are not necessarily eye-popping numbers, but they would have far and away exceeded any other WR production for Green Bay in 2018. Nelson’s return to the team would have had a massive impact on both team performance and position group morale. It would be too slipshod to predict that Nelson’s return would have saved the Packers from a losing record and missing the playoffs for the second straight year, but in a year that was marred by injuries and inconsistent play from the wide receiver position, Gutekunst would have been wise to roll the dice on a beloved franchise player.
If Nelson’s departure from the team was truly the first straw in Rodgers’ burgeoning distrust of Gutekunst, this would have been an easily avoidable mistake by just letting Nelson play and retire a Packer like he wanted to.
Rodgers has allegedly cited this move, alongside the release of Randall Cobb and Jake Kumerow (of all people), as some of the personnel decisions that have led to his rift with the franchise. It becomes easier to understand why, considering the lack of impact that many of the players that were left behind in Nelson’s wake have had on the team. Nelson was, at worst, a trustworthy player that Rodgers could go to in an emergency situation.
If Nelson stays, it is also not unrealistic to think that he plays for a few more seasons to usher up the young crop of receivers. I would speculate that Nelson knew that he would not have an opportunity to return to Green Bay, and therefore decided to retire. Who knows; maybe Jordy would have played past his age-33 season. Donald Driver played in the green and gold until he was 37 — it would have been nice to see Nelson do the same.
His presence on the team, beyond statistical impact, could have eased Rodgers into the Gutekunst era of Packers football as well. If Nelson plays for a few more years, it would be guaranteed that Rodgers has a close friend on the team even after Cobb and Kumerow are inevitably let go.
Is all of this Gutekunst’s fault? Sure, I mean, everything else sure seems to be, these days. However, this one seemed like a no-brainer at the time. It still does in hindsight.
Jordy should never have gone to the beach.