Monday, December 29, 2008

Silverstein: Losing Driver Would Leave a Void

Tom Silverstein writes in today's JSOnline, opining about the growing impact of Greg Jennings and, perhaps, the eventual fade of Donald Driver.
"When you lose games, everything happens," Driver said. "Players lose their jobs, coaches lose their jobs. Some people stay, some people go. It's part of life. It's always business in the National Football League.

"Everybody talks about me getting ready to be 34. I don't see my career winding down. Things will happen. Maybe it comes to that, that point where I'm getting old, maybe they want to keep their young receiver group. I love this organization, I love this team. I would never want to play somewhere else. But you never know what will happen."

Given general manager Ted Thompson's emphasis on youth, Jennings has reason to be concerned that his receiving partner might not be here next year.

This is the first time I've heard about Donald Driver being the fall guy for the season, but when you read Silverstein (and reflect on Thompson's approach to building the team by shedding veterans), it shapes into an uncomfortable reality.

Unlike most of the other positional groups on the team, Thompson appears to have prepared for the departure of Driver. While there didn't appear to be any plan in place to deal with the loss of such veterans as Ryan Longwell, Darren Sharper, Marco Rivera, Mike Wahle, or Ahman Green, Thompson has shored up the receiving ranks with sharp young talent. In fact, he has invested a first-day draft choice on a wide receiver in each of his four drafts.

It is exactly that kind of thinking, with a squad of Jennings, Nelson, Jones, and Martin potentially established as a solid 1-4 on the depth chart, that makes Driver expendable. In other words, this may be one of the times in which Thompson could shed a veteran and actually have the guys to replace him.

In many ways except one.

It was interesting that in all of the hubbub and sniping at Packer fans did with each other over the departure of Brett Favre, and that despite Rodgers' clear statistical superiority over Favre this season, the team was still missing something. It was the thought of many, including myself, that the Packers were missing that leadership and heart the Favre had brought to the team.

In some ways, that can be good or bad. For example, when Sterling Sharpe and his enormous ego left the team after the 1994 season, the rest of the team found its leadership elsewhere. Guys like Robert Brooks, Edgar Bennett, Mark Chmura, and Reggie White stood up and not only provided leadership, but better team-based leadership than we had previously with Sharpe.

When Favre left, the team struggled to find its identity much of the year, particularly at the end of close games when the entire responsibility of winning or losing had traditionally been placed on the shoulders of #4. Not surprisingly, it was at the end of those close games this year when the Packers seemed to be searching for someone to come through.

This is not to place blame on Aaron Rodgers. I've said it before, and I will say it again: Aaron Rodgers was ready for the Packers; the Packers were not ready for Aaron Rodgers. That leadership could come from anywhere. It didn't.

The loss of Donald Driver frightens me for much the same reason. It is more than simply having groomed players behind him, ready to move up the depth chart. It is more than simply producing the same statistics (or even better statistics) than what Driver was providing or could provide at his advanced age.

The idea of veteran leadership is something that this team is still searching for, and is something you have to expect when you are fielding the youngest team in the NFL for the third year in a row. The Packers look to Al Harris, Charles Woodson, and Donald Driver for that experience and leadership, something that you can't simply teach a young player on the practice field ("Okay, Jermichael, here's how you become a leader.")

I have no doubt that Jordy Nelson could move up and play the #2 receving position solidly. I have no doubt that Jones and Martin will still be among the best #3 and #4 receivers on an NFL roster.

But leadership goes deeper than that. For years, I have seen Donald Driver as the emotional leader of the team, the vocal player that makes the biggest plays, takes the biggest hits, and brings a rise to his teammates and the home fans in the stands with how he carries himself.

You can't put a price tag on that.

Don't get me wrong...Donald Driver will be 34 years old and isn't going to play forever. I know that he is going to have the microscope on him, with people looking for the first sign of age to slow him speed or abilities. Eventually, Donald Driver will no longer be a Green Bay Packer.

But this guy is the heart of the team. For as much as Thompson has done to insure we can replace his statistics once he is gone, it is going to be up to Thompson and McCarthy to insure we have someone who can replace his leadership when he is gone.


Sidenote: I found this blurb from Silverstein's article interesting:
Whether Jennings senses a change coming or just wants to make sure people know where he stands on the makeup of the receiving corps, he said when the season is over he intends to approach the front office and tell them Driver needs to stay. He said, if he could, he would include a clause in his next contract requiring that Driver stick around at least another year or two.
Umm. Didn't Brett Favre come under a ton of criticism for thinking he could offer advice to the front office? Got to love those double standards...

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