The room is bustling with one media huddle after another crowding nearby lockers. Each group of cameras is fixed on a different member of the Green Bay Packers, with most reporters inquiring about how a team besieged by so many injuries has made it to this point unbeaten.
Across the room, Jordy Nelson discreetly walks over to his locker with a recently grown beard protruding from underneath his hoodie. A few months earlier, the cameras and recorders would have followed. Instead, the Pro Bowl receiver retrieves something from his space and passes through undisturbed.
Meet the 1,500-yard receiver in the room. One of the Packers’ greatest offensive weapons, shut down until 2016 after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the team’s second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nelson’s absence has had a cascading effect on the offense all season. So few in the NFL are able to do what the 30-year-old receiver can — the crispness of his routes, his toe-tapping sideline catches and the explosive plays downfield. The Packers can’t help but miss the production.
Not everything was lost in the fire, though. Nelson's knee injury allows him the freedom to rehab wherever he pleases. While there’s no mandate on how a player addresses his recovery, Nelson chose to stick around and perform his in Green Bay.
It’s no different than this past offseason when Nelson spent a great deal of time at team headquarters after undergoing hip surgery following the 2014 season. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in June that “Jordy’s been here more than any other player in the offseason.”
His newest injury hasn’t changed that.
“Jordy has done a fantastic job, and Jordy, you know he doesn't want any recognition on it and so forth. But he's really attacked his rehab like none other,” McCarthy said last week. “He's doing things that's making Dr. (Pat) McKenzie uncomfortable because he's doing so well so fast. So he's taking care of business.”
The byproduct of Nelson sticking around during his rehab is it keeps the team’s fourth-longest tenured player in the fold. He will downplay the contributions, but teammates and coaches alike have felt his impact during the first six games of the regular season.
Other than James Jones, every active receiver and tight end on the Packers’ roster is 25 or younger. Only Jones and Randall Cobb have more than one accrued season on their NFL resume. A litany of injuries only has increased the challenge with Davante Adams (sprained ankle) missing the last three games.
There are bound to be questions with such a young array of talent. Nelson imparts wisdom where he can, similar to the offseason program when Nelson served as practically another coach to second-year wide receiver Jeff Janis and 2015 third-round draft pick Ty Montgomery, who has played more than 60 percent of the offensive snaps as a rookie.
Nelson, between his rehab and therapy, has been a fixture in the meeting room and developed into a teaching tool for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and position coach Alex Van Pelt. Want to learn how to gain Rodgers’ trust? Pay attention because Nelson wrote the book on it.
“I can’t tell you how much it’s benefited us to have him in there,” Van Pelt said. “(Recently) we were in meetings and (Rodgers) probably directed three or four questions to Jordy, ‘What would you do on this, Jordy?’ ‘What would you tell Jeff to do here?’ ‘How would you coach Ty on this route?’ His knowledge, his experience, his experience with Aaron as his quarterback, and how Aaron sees it, too, he has a good feel for that, so any time Jordy speaks in the meeting, guys better be taking notes.”
One player Nelson has taken under his wing is Janis, a seventh-round pick in 2014 who closely resembles Nelson in both size (6-foot-3, 219) and athleticism. Still, his offensive opportunities have been limited, especially after falling behind Montgomery for the No. 3 job with Nelson and Adams sidelined.
Ready or not, Janis was thrust onto the field in Sunday’s 27-20 win over San Diego after Montgomery left in the second quarter with a sprained ankle and didn’t return. He played 40 of the Packers’ 49 offensive snaps and flashed the big-play potential he so often showed in practice and the preseason.
His two catches for 76 yards led the offense and were key plays in a pair of field-goal-producing drives. Janis is still far from a finished product, but the chance to bounce ideas off the veteran has been invaluable. It also could be critical for an offense seeking playmakers in the second half of the season.
“Mentally, he’s been doing it for so long,” Janis said. “He’s a vet and been on the same page with Aaron for so long. He just kind of asks questions to see how I’m thinking of things because he knows how Aaron is thinking of things. So he wants to make sure I’m thinking the same thing as Aaron. That’s huge because you have to be on the same page with him. He’s definitely been helpful.”
It’s not new for an injured player to stay in Green Bay during his rehab. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji spent all of last season with the Packers after tearing his right biceps in the preseason. He felt it gave him a fresh look at the game and his responsibility to younger linemen such as rookie Mike Pennel.
Raji, now 10 pounds lighter, has returned to the field and is playing more like he did in his second NFL season.
Inside linebacker Sam Barrington has taken the same approach this year after a foot injury he sustained in the opener in Chicago ended his season. He has spent the down time watching every game tape he can get his hands on, keying in on the playing styles of various tight ends and running backs.
Nelson obviously has a few more pelts on the wall than the 24-year-old Barrington, but there are certain benefits to being able to take a step back and reflect on the game.
“You have the opportunity to look at the game from a different perspective – look at the small things you wouldn’t necessarily look at if you were preparing for the game that week,” Barrington said.
Nelson’s schedule hasn’t changed too much other than he can drive his son, Royal, to school because he doesn’t have to arrive to work as early. He’s not traveling with the team at the moment, but may eventually.
Nelson spends home games perched in a suite at Lambeau Field because he has yet to be cleared to be on the sideline. Last month, he snuck down to the field to congratulate Cobb and the rest of his teammates after a 27-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks, the two-time defending NFC champions.
The perspective Nelson can provide to younger players is something the coaching staff sees as his greatest contribution. It’s one thing for Van Pelt to explain how a route should be run, but it’s another to hear it from a receiver with 400 receptions, 6,109 yards and 49 touchdowns for his career.
Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett believes Nelson has the rare ability to give you not only a glimpse into his thought process on a particular play, but also what Rodgers expects. Nelson can make routine routes in practice relatable to his own in-game experiences. He epitomizes the value of fundamentals.
“Tremendous man. Great attitude,” said Bennett, who was Nelson’s receivers coach from 2011-2014. “I think it certainly helps because he’s without a doubt one of our leaders. You put Jordy Nelson in that room and it helps the overall development of those young receivers and I think they learn a lot from him. I think it’s certainly helped in their process.”
It’s the first time in Nelson’s career he has had to pump the brakes. He didn’t miss a game in three years at Kansas State and played in 105 of a possible 112 regular-season games for the Packers before his knee injury.
As the 6-0 Packers trudge forward, Nelson remains embargoed until next season. His days are quietly comprised of working toward his comeback. When asked recently what his responsibility in the meeting rooms is these days, Nelson downplayed his role with this year’s team.
“I don’t have any,” Nelson said. “My responsibility is to get healthy. I go to post-practice meetings. That’s all. I’m not in there much.”
Ask those around him and you’re likely to get a very different answer.
“He’s full of baloney. I call him ‘Coach Jordy,’” said Van Pelt with a smile. “He’s very, very knowledgeable. Obviously he’s a great pro and he’s brought a lot of information to that room.”
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