USA TODAY Sports' Tom Pelissero weighs in on Jordy Nelson's injury and how the Packers will adjust without their No. 1 receiver.
PITTSBURGH – The Green Bay Packers’ high-powered offense may need to navigate the 2015 NFL season without one of its biggest components.
Coming off a career year in 2014, Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson left with a knee injury in the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers’ 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon and didn’t not return after crumpling to the ground without contact on a leaping catch.
NFL Network reported that Nelson’s initial diagnosis is a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which likely would end his eighth NFL season before it begins. The team only confirmed it was a knee injury and coach Mike McCarthy said he’ll undergo tests Monday to determine the severity.
Most of Nelson’s teammates chose their words carefully when addressing his situation after the game, but quarterback Aaron Rodgers sounded downtrodden when addressing the prospect of losing his favorite target.
“It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game,” Rodgers said.
Nelson landed awkwardly after hauling in an 8-yard reception from Rodgers, but picked himself up and limped to the sideline under his own power. He strolled down the sideline a couple times and even congratulated the first-team offense after running back Eddie Lacy’s 7-yard touchdown run.
Shortly thereafter, the 30-year-old receiver was brought to the locker room and didn’t return.
It would be a devastating injury for one of the team’s most important players. After signing a four-year, $39 million contract last summer, Nelson finished seventh in the league with 98 catches, fourth with 1,519 yards and tied for second with 13 touchdowns.
Nelson missed the entire offseason program after undergoing hip surgery after the season, but has missed only seven regular-season games with injury since 2008. Three came in 2009 because of a knee injury and four in 2012 due to a strained hamstring.
“With Jordy’s injury, I’m in the position of listening to all the information,” McCarthy said. “Until we get back to Green Bay and do the scans and things like that, then we’ll have all the information. Jordy Nelson is a key member of our football program both on the field and off the field, probably more so off the field.”
Nelson wasn’t the Packers’ only injury. Rodgers had his right wrist wrapped with ice after he was sacked for a safety on the Packers’ second series. He sat out the rest of the game, but said he would’ve returned if it was the regular season.
Cornerback Damarious Randall and outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard were carted to the locker room for cramping, but returned. Two other players, guard T.J. Lang and backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, were evaluated for concussions.
If Nelson is lost for the season, the Packers would need to lean heavily on fifth-year receiver Randall Cobb, who signed a four-year, $40 million contract in March after setting career-highs in catches (91), receiving yards (1,287) and touchdowns (12).
It likely would require their 2014 draft class — receivers Davante Adams and Jeff Janis, and tight end Richard Rodgers — to take on more responsibility, as well. Rodgers caught two nice balls, including a 21-yard touchdown pass from Tolzien, on the Packers’ six-play, 47-yard drive shortly before halftime.
Janis took a majority of Nelson’s first-team reps during his absence this summer, but played in only two games last season. Adams, 22, had 38 catches for 446 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie and was heralded by McCarthy as the Packers’ offseason MVP.
Would Adams be ready for a larger role if Nelson is sidelined?
“Of course if need be,” Adams said. “But Jordy’s a big part of everything. We’re just going to wait and see how everything plays out. We’re not really sure, it’s early still. I’m always going to be ready regardless. I’m prepared to have the ball come to me every time, so it doesn’t make a difference whether or not — it doesn’t take someone to be hurt or someone to have a cold or someone to need to get a drink of water. I’m going to still go as hard as I can.”
The Packers have three spots open on their 90-man roster and could go the free-agent route if needed, but the pickings are slim. The top veteran free agents are Wes Welker and former Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne, who reportedly visited with the New England Patriots on Sunday.
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Nelson’s leadership may be as difficult to replace as his on-field production. He’s been voted a playoff captain several times in recent years. Rookie receiver Ty Montgomery said Nelson has been a “big influence” on him since he was drafted in the third round in May, adding that “he’s a guy you can talk to.”
Fullback John Kuhn is one of only three players who have played for the Packers longer than Nelson. Like Rodgers, he said it’s a shame when a player is lost for the season because of an injury sustained in the exhibition season.
“We need practice as players,” fullback John Kuhn said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of guys that probably don’t need to play a whole lot in the preseason. So when you see injuries happen in the preseason, I’m not speculating, I don’t know what anything is, but when you see things happen, it’s just terrifying.
“You feel so bad for the guy who works his tail off every day of the year and is out here for a game that doesn’t count for anything other than the owners and some other people to make some money. It really sucks.”
The Packers had four players tear their ACL early last season — tackle Don Barclay, outside linebacker Andy Mulumba, receiver Jared Abbrederis and tackle Aaron Adams — but the only season-ending injury a starter suffered in camp was nose tackle B.J. Raji’s torn right biceps.
Once the regular season began, the Packers stayed relatively healthy the rest of the season, but Rodgers understands it’s not realistic to expect such luck every season.
“This is a sport where we’re all going to be injured at some point,” Rodgers said. “It’s 100 percent injury rate for every player. You’re going to deal with things. You just hate to see it in the preseason because it doesn’t count for anything. We’ll figure out what the status is on some of our guys who are hurt and move forward.”
Expectations were high for the league’s highest-scoring offense that returned all 11 preferable starters this season. Right now, the Packers are clinging to hope that test results might show Nelson’s injury isn’t as significant as feared.
““He’s a key member of our program, and we’re looking for good news (Monday),” McCarthy said. “That’s my mindset.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.