GREEN BAY – When Aaron Rodgers speaks to the media, almost everything he says is planned, carefully considered and intended for a specific purpose – to inspire his teammates, distract from a negative storyline, craft a new narrative or whatever.
Rodgers hadn’t talked to reporters in eight weeks when he stood at his locker Wednesday to answer questions for the first time since breaking his collarbone. For the most part, he was reserved and – for him – unrevealing.
But then he was asked about Davante Adams, who was essentially Green Bay’s only passing-game weapon for the seven games Brett Hundley started. After commending Adams and sending a pretty clear message to general manager Ted Thompson – "(Adams is) making a lot of money this year," Rodgers said. "Hopefully we pay him sooner rather than later" – the quarterback, unprompted, brought up a different wide receiver, whom he suggested could play a much bigger role moving forward.
"I know there's a lot of juice left in (No.) 87," Rodgers said, referencing Jordy Nelson’s jersey number. "I'd like to fill that up this week."
That was actually the second time Rodgers mentioned Nelson, having earlier thrown him into a response to a question about the Packers’ offense picking up where it left off when Rodgers got hurt on Oct. 15.
"We’ve gone away from some concepts that we’d like to get back in," he said. "We’re just going to keep building on what we’ve done in the run game. And we’ll get 87 a little bit more involved."
Two brief, little allusions, without even mentioning Nelson by name, but blatant indications that his friend and favorite target – forsaken with Hundley under center – would once again be a featured player in Green Bay’s offense, heading into Sunday’s showdown against the Panthers.
In the six games started by Rodgers, Nelson was targeted 38 times, with 25 receptions for 290 yards. Through Week 6, Nelson was leading the NFL in touchdown catches, with six, and was averaging 11.6 yards per reception. In seven games with Hundley, Nelson had 39 targets, with 22 catches for 153 yards and zero touchdowns. His receiving average fell to 7.5, the deep-threat wideout neutralized by his quarterback’s inability to throw the deep ball.
Rodgers’ return should do wonders for Nelson’s sagging numbers. He’s been Rodgers’ most productive receiver in their nine seasons together, especially in the end zone. Even after Nelson missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, he came back last year to catch 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns, the most quarterback-to-receiver scores in the league. The Rodgers-Nelson connection is the most prolific in Packers history, with a team-record 66 touchdowns.
The two veterans’ special chemistry is indisputable and well-documented.
Late last season, head coach Mike McCarthy said of the duo: "This is the best that I've ever been around; it's not even close. … This is the longest connection that I've been a part of in my career, and it's definitely the most fluid and productive."
And during OTAs over the summer, Rodgers discussed their bond.
"We know each other on the field really well," Rodgers said. "He understands when the ball’s coming out, where he needs to be in certain spots. We’ve done so many things in practice over the years. He’s always seeing the game through the quarterback’s eyes. He knows timing and spacing and second and third reactions better than anybody that’s ever been here."
With Rodgers out, Nelson practically disappeared from the offense and Hundley developed a close connection of his own with Adams – 41 receptions for 489 yards and four scores, half of Hundley’s touchdown throws. And while he remained businesslike and unemotional in the locker room, nobody could be happier about Rodgers’ return to the field than Nelson.
"We all have our job to do," Nelson said. "We have a lot of reps that we’ve put into it, but, I mean, what our assignment is and what we do as receivers doesn’t change depending on who the quarterback is.
"There’s no way to put one thing on it," Nelson said of his chemistry with Rodgers. "But it’s a lot of cumulative reps, cumulative conversations that carry over."
Rodgers’ injury and Nelson’s drop-off this year recall the similar circumstances in 2013, when Rodgers also suffered a broken collarbone – that time, his non-throwing shoulder – and missed seven games, and Nelson also saw his production decline. The wideout caught seven touchdown passes through the first seven games of 2013, but, after Rodgers got hurt, he had just one score the rest of the year.
Then, when Rodgers came back Week 17 against the Bears – a thrilling victory in the regular-season finale that got Green Bay into the playoffs – Nelson factored prominently, catching 10 balls for 161 yards, both season highs. The Packers hope for the same enlivening effect in Carolina, as they try to win out the final three weeks and, improbably, make the postseason.
Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said the pair’s "tremendous chemistry" would help them reconnect again like they did four years ago.
"They’ve been playing together for such a long time," Bennet said, according to the team’s website. "The time off doesn’t necessarily hurt. They’re in sync. We want to get out on the practice field and make sure we’re all seeing it the same way, but when two guys have been playing together for such a long time, the chemistry factors into it."
Added receivers coach Luke Getsy, "You have two really good football players who have played a lot of football together. When you have that type of relationship – he started off the same way; he was leading the league in touchdown receptions. The chemistry they have is special. There’s no denying that.
"You remember the Seattle play last year, when he put his hand up and Aaron knew exactly what that meant? I think there’s a lot of that those two have that’s special, and we look forward to getting back to a lot of that again."
So, don’t be surprised to see No. 87, still with all that juice left, streaking into the end zone on Sunday, followed by a grinning exchange of thumbs-ups.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.