12.16.2010

Driver approaching the end of the road

Since watching the loss to the Lions and the Patriots' subsequent deconstruction of the Bears, I've found myself getting less and less optimistic about the Packers' playoff hopes. If Rodgers can't go on Sunday, Flynn is going to be eaten alive by New England, and the Pack needs a lot of outside help in addition to a couple of tough wins if they want to even sniff the post-season. And just like that I go into Brewers mode, giving up on hope and thinking back on all the good moments of the season.

My favorite?

Donald Driver catches the ball on the right side of Lambeau Field 40 yards from the endzone and turns to run. He jukes 49ers SS Reggie Smith at the 30 and easily sheds off the ensuing attempted tackle.

25 yard line.

FS Dashon Goldson runs full speed into the now stopped Driver. Driver ducks as teammate Andrew Quarless jumps over him to deliver a block on Goldson, then takes off again toward the endzone.

20 yard line.

CB Nate Clements leads a mob of 4 Niners after #80, but Driver deftly slows his stride and uses his left hand to help Clements run past him, out of bounds.

10 yard line.

The other 3 are now right on his heels, and Clements turns around in time to catch Driver's body at the 5, but it's too late--their momentum carries all 5 players past the 1 yard line.


Endzone.

Was there a better play this season? Definitely not on the offensive side of the ball, and really, you can argue that was the best play of Donald Driver's storied career--one that's likely nearing its end.

With Driver's injuries hindering him for much of the season, there was some question of how much juice he had left in his tank. Before the start of the season he was extended through 2012, and the concern was that the extension may have been a bit hasty. The stats back up the worry. Plenty has been written in recent years on the 30-year-wall NFL running backs hit, and for wide receivers there's a similar wall around the age of 36. Over the past decade, the likes of Joey Galloway, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, and Bobby Engram all went downhill around the age of 36. Driver turns 36 on Groundhog's Day.

Oh, but that play. Anyone who can make that play has to have a decent amount of mileage left in them, right? Well, perhaps. Over the past decade there have been two exceptions to the rule: Jerry Rice, who put up 1,000 yards at age 40 as a Raider, and Terrell Owens, who is on pace for 80 catches and 1,200 yards with the Bengals at age 37. Owens and Driver are not comparable in any way, but you could probably make a case for a comparison to Rice. Rice was known for his off-season workouts, and Driver does keep himself in similar shape. But Driver isn't a top-5 all time NFL player by a long shot, so it's hard to see him bucking the trend.

When I think of how to properly plan for using a 36 year old WR, I think of what the Baltimore Ravens did for Derrick Mason. Mason has been The Guy in Baltimore for the past 4 years, and he's very similar to Driver statistically and in how he's used schematically within the system. After he crossed the 35 mark, Baltimore responded by bringing in Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmandzadeh--the former to take the pressure off, the latter as the contingency plan in the event that Mason's body gives out.

But the Packers seem to already have this in place. Since 2008, Greg Jennings has grown into the #1 role while James Jones has steadily improved every year. Jones has had some growing pains this season in the way of untimely drops and fumbles, but should Driver hit the 36-wall in 2011, I think Jones will be ready. And quite frankly, the Packers are in better shape than the Ravens: while Boldin and Housh are 30 and 33, respectively, Jennings and Jones are 27 and 26.

But that's all a year away. Right now Driver is still the cagey veteran who hasn't quite hit the steep portion over the hill, and he has some milestones approaching. The obvious one is that he needs 501 more yards to reach 10,000 for his career, and that will come next season, but he also only needs 158 receiving yards to become the Packers' all time leader. That'll happen in the final two weeks, and should the Packers' playoff hopes collapse like the Metrodome roof in a snowstorm, it's a good reason to keep watching.



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