Out in the Open: The Inevitability of Jordy Nelson
This story appears in the October 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
For some reason it feels obvious to us watching. And, certainly, it’s been pretty clear so far in the scheme of the Green Bay Packers 2014 pass attack and in the sightlines of Aaron Rodgers. But for as easy as it is to simply include Jordy Nelson as one of the best wide receivers in the game today, for as uncontroversial a statement as that is if you’ve watched him or glanced at his numbers, why does he still have this feeling of being a player on the quiet fringes, a guy people are still surprised to see wreck defenses as the biggest target in one of the league’s better offenses?
You should first say that one reason could be the fact that quiet fringes are where Nelson would rather be. Nelson doesn’t care about the spotlight: He shows up, does his job, and so on and so forth. You’ve heard announcers say that sort of cliched thing before and if it was just left at that one doesn’t think Nelson would mind. Maybe this can help explain part of why it doesn’t feel like Nelson is mentioned in the same circles as other elite NFL wideouts, but it doesn’t explain the whole situation either.
It doesn’t mean his narrative isn’t built from solid Kansas ground. While, from what we know about Nelson, it’s not as thin as a narrative construct – Nelson legitimately seems like about as down-to-earth and unassuming as any receiver who’ll also kill you dead on a double move – there is more, there is that dagger mentality to Nelson’s game that juxtaposes his big, squinty Jordy Nelson smile, about as nonthreatening a face as any shredder of secondaries in the league. A wolf wearing a yellow smiley face sticker as a mask.
Through two games this season Nelson was targeted on 35.3 percent of his routes, according to Pro Football Focus, and was targeted by Rodgers 30 times against the Jets and Seahawks. Think about that: 30 targets in two games! Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford think that’s leaning a little heavy towards one receiver. Last season James Jones was the Packers’ second-highest targeted receiver – behind guess who. Jones was targeted 93 times in 14 games. Nelson had essentially a third of that amount through two games this year. Last season, as the quarterbacks and game plans changed in Green Bay’s frenzied survival mode, the constants were Eddie Lacy punching into daylight and Nelson being open and available. His high target number could get to be concerning this year because it is so un-Packers-like in the era of Rodgers and Mike McCarthy and spread it around and share the wealth. But doesn’t that make Nelson’s accomplishments all the strangely better thus far? In adverse conditions and in games where the Packers skidded and sputtered at times offensively, nothing stopped Nelson from going out and being available. Rodgers is targeting him with a higher frequency than anyone else, which of course helps, but knowing Nelson, why wouldn’t he?
Nelson is open regardless of whether or not he is. He jumps around corners like it’s a daily activity, like he’s reaching for a box of cereal behind the crackers in the back of the cupboard. He’s more fluid than fast, and it’s with that smooth break in a route that he can shock defenders into giving him enough space to make a catch before churning out the yards-after-catch, his other calling card. It’s why he’s often on the end of those long, devastating play-action passes from Rodgers: Nelson doesn’t seem like he’s burning by you until, whoops, there he goes. This only gets more impressive each time because it doesn’t feel like a deep secret of Packers football, that they’re going to take their shots with Nelson down the field. And yet, like he did against the Jets in Week 2, he perfectly snaps off a double move down the right sideline, twisting Dee Milliner into a knot, and a pass seemingly zip-lined to Nelson on a string hit him in stride, and, in one motion, he swerves inside towards open green grass and the end zone.
After that game Milliner said of the play, “He ran an out and up. When he ran out, I jumped on it. But he sort of got in my blind spot. When I turned around to break on the out, he was going upfield.”
There and gone, because no matter how many times it happens, defenses never seem prepared for the next one.
Jets coach Rex Ryan had his own thoughts on Nelson post-game back in September, saying, “He was Jerry Rice out there today.” And it’s in that sort of sentiment where, I think, you could see Nelson still somehow getting lost by the opposition. No, he wasn’t Jerry Rice out there. Nelson did Jordy Nelson things, shocking in how consistently he does them, to be sure, but that’s kind of his game, that’s what it’s always been. He makes these catches, stretches his arms back one way while sliding on the turf the other way, snagging a ball that physical limitations would seem to not allow him to get to, hits the high point of a ball on its descent, the football inverse of a grizzly swiping a salmon when it’s closest to the surface, cradles low-and-away passes or makes a catch in the flat and, almost instinctually, makes the first guy miss. It’s the crisp route-running, the always-overlooked blocking, the way he just finds ways to get his hands up and where they need to be, ignoring little things like where the rest of his body happens to be located. These are things Nelson does in every game. He is the most obvious, dangerous threat, and even if defenses are aware they’re never exactly ready, either.
Other players like that, that share some of those descriptors, are thought of as inevitable destroyers. Calvin Johnson is inevitable. A.J. Green is inevitable, as is Dez Bryant or Randy Moss in the “old days” or Jimmy Graham or the Bears’ duo of receiving monsters. I don’t know, maybe you can’t be prepared for Nelson until the problem is real and present, like knowing you need to eat better and only really considering it after a bad trip to the doctor’s office. But I’d argue Nelson is inevitable. It’s not a surprise to me, even if the plays he makes will never not be shocking to watch over again.
That’s why the Jerry Rice comment, at least to me, indicates some level of surprise that Nelson’s destruction of the Jets happened, like it wasn’t supposed to, sort of like when the Packers defense has a rough day and we all say they made Player X or Team Y look like Hall of Famers. We’re shocked it happened on those days because we didn’t see it coming from the opposition. And I don’t know if that’s how teams think of Nelson. Teams almost have to be smarter than that, have to recognize the most glaring potential problem on the other side. But there’s no need to try explaining away his production as some defensive oversight. Nelson makes an impact no matter the focus put on him. It’s just who he is.
Of course, nine catches for 209 yards and a touchdown is ridiculous, even for a player who makes that sort of thing seem relatively routine. New York was torched to levels previously unseen even in Nelson’s career, so a little hyperbole from Ryan is, first of all, never shocking, and also maybe a little warranted after what he’d just witnessed. The longer it’s even a little bit thought that Nelson is doing something out of character by making acrobatic plays so good you can’t help but take them for granted, though, the Packers – especially with the way Rodgers was locked in on him early this season – will likely happily dredge that deep well until they hit the other side of the world.
Still, there’s a pretty good chance the Packers passing offense will balance itself out as the season goes on. It will probably need to, to some degree, to remain effective. Randall Cobb is as dangerous as they come with a little space, and requires plenty of attention, as will increasingly Davante Adams and Jarrett Boykin and the aforementioned Lacy. Jordy Nelson is not always going to be this far ahead in targets. But who knows, maybe he will. The thing with Nelson is not that he’s targeted so much, or that he slips behind and over and around defenses, or even that he can seemingly make magic a weekly routine. It is in how it feels to watch him play, to watch one of the best there is at the position, and to be left both unsurprised and shocked in the moment. To be, time and again, amazed by the inevitable.