Pitch and catch
Jordy Nelson recently had knee surgery that kept him out of a portion of training camp and most of the preseason. One of the Green Bay Packers’ major downfield threats, Nelson would be missed if gone for any extended period of time. But the Packers’ passing game of today is made, at least in theory, to overcome these setbacks. They’ve collected a talented pool of wideouts and have an attack based on exploiting situations, presenting defenses with multiple sets and a slew of potential receivers to account for.
They also have the surgical Aaron Rodgers. His oft-correct decision-making and understanding of opportunities makes such an offensive theme possible. Despite offseason losses like Donald Driver and an unproven, already re-tweaked, reshuffled offensive line, Green Bay should once again be one of the more potent offenses through the air.
Even during the Packers’ dark ages, generally considered to be the 1950s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, glowing examples of elite wideouts shone through. The careers of players like Sterling Sharpe or James Lofton showed – aside from, in Sharpe’s case, how brutally sad the game can be – the impact of one’s surroundings. If we think of the Packers and their wide receivers over time, the position itself or a given receiver can be viewed in a vacuum for better or worse. But like anything else that never tells the whole story.
There’s a lot that goes into any prolific passing attack. As in, everything goes into it. The Packers know this today just as they’ve known it as an organization going down through the years to the dawn of forward passing. From the time it became legal, when throwing and route-running were only starting to become understood and accepted as legitimate offensive options, Green Bay has left mammoth footprints in the long path from football’s primitive start towards the relative spaceship the sport resembles today. The core trio of Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones is only the newest example of the Packers playing to stay on the front end of the aerial curve. Johnny Blood McNally and Don Hutson started bending that curve in the 1920s. And as it continues to evolve, Green Bay has been home to its share of receivers that have left their mark on the team and position.
‘Jesus wouldn’t have played football’
The Packers were one of the first teams to start nudging football away from its straight-line headbanging ways of the early 1900s. For the deserved and necessary attention the game receives today regarding the safety of its players, annual end-of-season fatality reports in the newspaper would probably bring football to a screeching stop.
Denis Gullickson is the author of the book, “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally,” and co-author of, “Before They Were the Packers: Green Bay’s Town Team Days.” He is also an all-around Packers historian and savant. He says football-related deaths were all too normal in the early turn of the century. From 1901 to 1907, 101 men died playing. Something had to change if the sport itself was to survive.
“There were people just screaming about the brutality of football and ministers saying, ‘Jesus wouldn’t have played football,’” Gullickson said, “and college presidents saying football is an abomination and it won’t build character amongst our students.”
The forward pass was legalized in 1906 but came with its own safety measures. Teams couldn’t throw across the middle, for one, but most teams really didn’t utilize the pass anyway. Gullickson says in 1912 some of the modern rules of passing were implemented. At the time those rules were best put into practice by Curly Lambeau and Knute Rockne. The race was on as teams worked to effectively install this new technology into a battered football machine.
“When we talk about receiving it’s a matter of evolution, certainly from 1912 to say the late-20s,” Gullickson said. “Many teams still don’t run the pass (at that time). In fact one of the reasons the Packers were so successful in the 20s was because they would play a lot of opponents who didn’t have somebody to throw the ball and therefore didn’t have receivers, so they just stuck with the running game. Most of those teams didn’t defend the pass very well either, so the Packers would just shred them with throwing the ball 20 times in a game. That was a lot of their success across the state of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
“So when you talk about the evolution of the receiving position, obviously that’s all evolving as the pass is implemented. (Don) Hutson arrives on the scene in the mid-30s and by then you’ve got enough of a pattern that people are talking about routes and how to throw the ball, how to lead the guy. The ball is still fairly rotund, you can see the ball go on a heck of a diet as the pass gets more prevalent in teams’ game plans. So when you talk about routes, and you talk about fake moves or juking, that all really starts to take off in the 30s. Then it’s all a matter of refining those skills.”
Blood’s Game, Don’s Sport
Gullickson literally wrote the book on John McNally. Those skills necessary to be an elite receiver? The man better known as Johnny Blood possessed them. McNally just had more going on in his head and in his free-spirited life. Too much to center all of his attention towards being the first modern wide receiver. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t, though.
“I know lots of people give Hutson credit for being the first modern style of receiver. I don’t know that that’s true necessarily,” Gullickson said. “Don ran patterns, he was certainly faster than most of the guys on the field and really found his groove in being a receiver, so I understand how people say he was the prototype of the modern receiver.”
Johnny Blood started his career with the Packers in 1929, six years before Hutson joined the team. McNally played receiver but he also lined up as a halfback. He punted and he threw and he didn’t really care so much about where he was playing, so long as he was playing. Gullickson says McNally never fully embraced the position of wide receiver but “no doubt” had the tools for greatness. Hs interests were, well, varied.
“Whatever John McNally did, he just did it with a flair, including being a receiver or being a poet on the street corner or walking a tightrope or climbing out, after too many glasses of scotch, on the front of a ship in the middle of the ocean,” Gullickson said. “Everything he did, he did with a certain aplomb, including being a receiver. I think lots of people could say Johnny Blood was probably the first real modern receiver. He just didn’t apply himself to it like Hutson.
“He was bit irreverent towards his own tools. Many of the players who played with him – Don Hutson himself said that nobody could change a game around like John McNally. This is from who people acknowledge as the first prototype of the modern receiver. Hutson himself said when Johnny Blood came into a huddle, everybody just felt like, ‘Okay, we’re down a little bit but we can win.’ Even the greatest receiver felt like this was a guy with a lot of skills. But John, he was an amazing cut-up, so as a result I think a lot of people took him less seriously in the role of receiver or halfback.”
Gullickson says that irreverence wasn’t a lack of respect for the sport – “Because nobody could make a last-second fingertip catch when it was absolutely needed like Johnny Blood either” – rather, McNally effortlessly played and understood the game of football, then went on about his other leisurely pursuits. He passed the Live Life To The Fullest final exam we all face.
“He also understood in the grand scheme of things football is football, and so is Shakespeare,” Gullickson said. “I suppose you could say he was irreverent to Shakespeare in the same regard. Everybody says Shakespeare is the greatest author of all time and John would probably say that too, but he just had such a wonderful sense of these things in the big scheme.”
Look in Packers history and the NFL record books and you see why Hutson first comes to mind when thinking of the prototypical modern wideout. He leads the team in all-time receiving touchdowns (99) and led the league in that category for nine seasons, an NFL record. He led the league in receiving yards for seven seasons, another NFL record, along with the eight seasons where he led the league in receptions, yet another NFL record.
It goes on like this for awhile; a picture of Hutson standing, holding a pile of footballs in his arms, is meant to symbolize all of the receiving records he held (and there’s a good chance he still holds). It basically says it all.
Hutson was usually the fastest man on the field and, by quickly picking up route-running, scorched his way to the top of the receiving ranks. His drive and will to become the best receiver he could be set him apart from McNally at the time and still keeps him in the pantheon of all-time legends, especially at the receiver position, growing but in its infancy nonetheless in his day. Hutson took the time and made the efforts to master the position before anyone else, laying the groundwork (and records to break) for those to come.
Again, there’s a reason he first usually comes to mind when we talk about the wide receiver’s foremost inventor of the wheel.
Spotlights: Lofton and Sharpe
“Ron Wolf said something about Brett Favre once and I just always thought, ‘You bet, that’s the truth,’” Denis Gullickson said.
“He said something to the effect of, there are certain players that, when they walk out on the field they just tilt the field, they stick out above the rest.
“Johnny Blood was one of those, according to Don Hutson himself. Favre, Ron Wolf said he was one of those guys – he just comes out on the field and there’s a difference. I think (James) Lofton was potentially that kind of guy.”
As the Packers entered a ragged portion of their history, the receiving position had long come out of its growth stage. Defenses wouldn’t be fooled on passing alone. They often knew who to watch for. But in the case of a few Green Bay wide receivers, secondaries could be beaten, again and again, no matter what the rest of the roster looked like. This pair of high draft picks would become another chapter in Packers’ passing game lore.
“A gazelle, a track athlete with a football uniform on,” as Gullickson describes him, James Lofton, drafted sixth overall in the 1978 NFL Draft, produced a large part of his Hall of Fame career during some of Green Bay’s lean years. Slender and tall, Lofton held the Packers’ all-time receiving yards record (9,656) until Driver eclipsed the mark in 2011. Lofton accumulated his total in nine seasons in Green Bay, a testament to his big-play ability, and he still holds the team’s record for most games with 100 or more receiving yards (32). An all-around threat, Lofton is also third on the Packers’ all-time yards from scrimmage list with 9,901 combined receiving and rushing yards.
Lofton was traded to the Raiders in 1987, later becoming the first player in NFL history to score a touchdown in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. “I think he was a little too big for Green Bay just in terms of persona,” Gullickson said, “but (he was) definitely just an amazingly skilled guy.”
Whereas Lofton got help in the forms of receiver John Jefferson and tight end Paul Coffman, Sterling Sharpe, selected by the Packers with the seventh overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, spent most of his all-too-short career as the lone, obvious, unstoppable target.
“It was like walking up to the line of scrimmage and saying, ‘Well, we’re going to throw it to Sterling again and everybody knew it and he’d still catch the pass.’ He broke his own record, actually he set a record and broke it,” Gullickson said, referring to Sharpe’s 108 receptions in 1992, a team record until 1993 when he broke it by catching 112 passes.
“It was just amazing to watch a guy keep his head up when the rest of the team wasn’t all that great. It was real forgettable unfortunately,” Gullickson said. “I suppose you might describe it as Secretariat. He’s so far out in the race, 32 lengths in front at Belmont, it was kind of like, well there was Secretariat and there was the rest of the race.”
Robert Brooks was drafted by Green Bay in 1992 but didn’t have a major impact until 1994. Still, in Brooks, Sharpe had the makings of a quality NFL receiver alongside him. Not to mention a young gunslinging quarterback named Brett Favre.
“He just stayed at it. He was reliable as it gets,” Gullickson said of Sharpe. “I think he made Brett Favre in the beginning. I mean, Favre, the loose cannon that he was – and don’t get me wrong, I’m the biggest Brett Favre fan – but Sterling, he seemed to mind his own business and go out there and be great. He had the skills.
“He kept that smile. He’d run into the endzone and he’d have that smile, or he’d miss a pass and he’d have that smile. Some people I think took that wrong, like, ‘Oh Sharpe doesn’t care,’ but the team was struggling and I thought to myself: ‘How else would you be?’ How would you be if you were that skilled and you knew that you were never going to be in the playoffs and you went out and did your very best?”
The 1994 season was the last time the trio of Sharpe, Brooks and Favre played together, a neck injury forcing Sharpe to end his career prematurely. Sharpe is a prime example of situation and circumstance not fairly meeting the level of, or possibilities for, a particular player’s talent. For a receiver so much depends on fit and scheme and quarterback. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. In Sharpe’s case it didn’t exactly.
He left his mark regardless. During his induction speech for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, Shannon Sharpe, longtime Denver Broncos tight end and Sterling’s brother, said this: “I’m the only player of 267 men that’s walked through this building to my left that can honestly say this: I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, and the second best player in my own family.”
There are a great many rags-to-riches stories in sports. Donald Driver starting from the bottom to being where he is now, though, is no less incredible because of that. You’ve probably heard about Driver’s hardships growing up, how he and his family temporarily lived out of a U-Haul and just how much stood between Driver then and Driver now. It is hard to imagine. It is difficult to understand for those of us who haven’t lived it.
Donald Driver went on to play college football at Alcorn State and was the 213th player chosen in the 1999 NFL Draft, which, reading that, still doesn’t feel as far away as it really is. Now, 14 years later, Driver is the Packers’ all-time leader in receiving yards (10,137), receptions (743), consecutive games with a catch (133), and a few others.
He also has, because of the player he was but also the person he still is, the universal love and respect of Packers fans everywhere. Suffice to say, there aren’t many receivers as metallically durable, endlessly energetic and consistently reliable on 3rd and 9 as Donald Driver. And there are also not many people in general like Donald Driver. (Or, apparently, dancers.) We’re guessing he would probably say that’s the most important; the person part, not the dancer part.
“He was courageous and just had tremendous character,” Gullickson said. “What can I say? Humble and bright-spirited, he was certainly a treasure.”
Gullickson, through some supernatural power, had a feel for this when Driver was only a rookie.
“I saw him as a rookie make a catch along the sideline,” Gullickson said, “and my daughter had liked Reggie White, and she liked Brett Favre after Reggie retired but she said, ‘Dad I don’t want to have Brett Favre be my favorite Packer because he’s everybody’s favorite Packer.’ I said well we just got a young receiver. I think he’s a good one.
“I guarantee I can’t pick all the numbers in a lottery but I was lucky on picking Donald Driver for her. It was just because I saw him make this leaping grab on the sidelines and I thought, ‘He gets it, man.’”
What works today
It is easier, for this author at least, to remember and appreciate a person and receiver like Driver. As is the case with evolution, things change and, starting this season, so do the Packers without him. (Though he largely wasn’t utilized much last season, either.) But Driver fit Green Bay’s current system. Really, who that we’ve discussed so far wouldn’t? This is a receiver’s haven provided one is okay with splitting the catches by who’s open at the moment the ultrafast neurons in Aaron Rodgers’ head send the message THROW IT NOW to his arm and fingers, that split-second when the wrist flicks and the ball is gone.
That’s how a receiver gets a chance at a reception today. That’s also a vacuum. Rodgers’ decision is based on the defense’s alignment. It is based on a receiver’s ability to run the correct route, their matchup, the secondary’s movements once the ball is snapped, the offensive line’s ability to handle pressure, the running back either staying in the backfield or dropping out as a safety net, the weather and the wind and countless other variables. It is based on so, so much that is inconsistent. And yet the Packers through the years have consistently fielded influential, meaningful receivers.
One thought? They’ve always adapted; they’ve always been ahead of that curve. They drafted Sharpe and Lofton early and they hit on both. Curly Lambeau put the forward pass to use before many were ready to accept it as the changing times.
James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson were all drafted as Packers, as independently strong pieces to a complex puzzle. Jones endured struggles early on but has become one of the quietest receiving assassins in the league. He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (14) in 2012. Cobb is versatile, anything you need him to be, and primed to get plenty of attention from defenses. Nelson is big and farmstrong and deceptively fast – this is especially apparent when he’s alone down the field after a play-action fake from Rodgers, the safety jogging dazedly behind, his head down.
As a football team, Green Bay has also been supremely lucky to have great quarterbacks become so as Packers – read: Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers.
“The receiving game is nothing without a quarterback,” Gullickson says, “and Green Bay has been so blessed with Favre, and I know a lot of people cut on him for interceptions and stuff – certainly he’s no Aaron Rodgers (in that respect) – but Aaron Rodgers is no Brett Favre (either).
“But to have Aaron and his skills throwing to these guys, that’s a big piece of it too. If you don’t have a superstar, or you don’t need a superstar receiver because you have a quarterback who spreads the ball around like that. What does that tell you about the quarterback and his field vision? His decision-making is amazing, his ability to buy time is amazing … we’ve got this quarterback superior to most if not all, so that makes a receiver too. Obviously they’ve got to go out and run their routes and get open and have some hands, but that quarterback on the other end of that thing is key to the receiving game. And we’ve got Aaron Rodgers, what more do you need to say?”
So they’ve had legendary players but they’ve been smart, too. Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson have built a sum-greater-than-the-parts group of wideouts that maximizes their quarterback’s instinctual skills at making the right move at the right time. His options, and this is crucial too, are all threatening in their own ways.
The spread and the read-option are popular now in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean everyone should try them. The most productive offenses seem to look at a roster, then build around the best players rather than rigidly inserting X player into Y system. From there, they tweak and add or subtract, making the offense into the optimal version of itself, whatever that may be.
“It’s evolved into what it is for a reason,” Denis Gullickson says. “You talk about modern offenses, and this is certainly germane, you talk about the pass-run relationship and for the last couple of years people have been dogging the Packers because they don’t have a running game and whatever. So you have these two new backs and they’re going to take pressure off the passing game and make Aaron even more effective, and that’s great.”
It is great because balance is great, and usually leads to bigger plays in the passing game. It’s also a topic that’s been batted around since throwing was legalized in an effort to save lives.
“That was an argument back when the pass first came into the league,” Gullickson said. “The Packers were exceptional because they threw the ball that often. Other teams might throw a couple passes a game to get the defense off-guard, so that relationship, once the pass began to be incorporated into offenses, that discussion’s been had since the 20s.
“What is the breakdown? Some teams do quite well (passing), but some teams have balance and a 50-50 (pass-run ratio) may be the desirable quotient, but some teams fare very well with 65-35 or whatever.”
During the first week of full pads in training camp, Nelson wondered about the Packers’ receiving depth, saying, “The talent is there, the depth is what’s going to be the challenge, and it’s up to these young guys to step up and to have that No. 4 or No. 5 or sixth guy, whatever it is, to be able to play. Ever since I’ve been here we’ve been that deep, very strong and I think that’s where the difference is from last year to this year, depth.”
Whatever the ratio, that’s the new system. It needs multiple wideouts and options. That’s the course the Packers, in the Rodgers era, have been and will continue to be on. All told, it’s a pretty great one so far. But while depth, in theory, can save the system if someone goes down, depth can’t stay deep without quality receivers either.
On the surface, though, it’s simple. As Gullickson says, “For all of the things that have revolved around the receiver position, it’s still a matter of trying to get open, catch the ball and having a guy hit you when you’re open.”
Within that basic framework is the complex, ever-changing nexus of passing the football, of pitching and catching. Packers history continues to teach us that for receivers talent, no matter the circumstances, can shine through any potential concealer. The biggest concealer today may be the brightness of those surroundings.