GREEN BAY - The reason this Green Bay Packers offense will be different – must be different – stood on Ray Nitschke Field’s sideline Tuesday morning, watching training camp’s first practice.
He wasn’t wearing cleats. No helmet in hand. Just another spectator.
This isn’t how Jordy Nelson’s ninth season was supposed to start. One year ago, in his first public comments since tearing the ACL in his right knee, Nelson made clear his goal to return for the start of training camp. He was comfortable, even content with that timeline.
For a while, it looked like Nelson was on track. If there was a game Sunday, he said before minicamp, he could play. So when Nelson was one of six Packers players on the physically unable to perform list this week, it was surprising.
What’s more troubling? Nelson wasn’t surprised.
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Sometime this offseason — Nelson wouldn’t say when — the Packers' top receiver had another injury. He called it a “hiccup” in his left knee, a cute word that might or might not underline the potential severity.
Maybe Nelson is fine, and he’ll be ready when the Packers travel south to play the Jacksonville Jaguars for their Sept. 11 opener. But his return is now officially delayed, albeit for a separate injury. So it’s fair to exercise caution before making predictions.
“Obviously, I thought I’d be (practicing) right now,” Nelson said, “but you don’t ever know. Things can happen, and that’s why you’re always told you don’t give timelines. Because things can change day in and day out.”
Before practice, coach Mike McCarthy said he had no “long-term concerns” for any of his six PUP players. He expects each to return “at some point” during training camp.
Later, Nelson provided no guarantees. Right now, he said, his "only timeline is Week 1."
Nelson tried to quell the worry he knew another knee injury would bring. He said there was no need for surgery. Multiple times, he reiterated the new injury was unrelated to his ACL. “The ACL is good,” Nelson said. “My ACL is fine,” he said again. A healthy ACL is the most important factor for Nelson to be the receiver he was in 2014, so that’s promising.
Regardless, the lack of specifics for his return provided reason to worry.
“We put a timetable on the ACL and thought we’d be back,” Nelson explained, “but obviously something happened with the other knee. Again, not the ACL. No one needs to freak out. That’s what we’re trying to get out there. If we put a timetable on it and something else happens, then I lied to you. It’s something that we’ll just let progress, and as it gets better we’ll do more and get back as soon as possible.
“I’m not worried about it. That’s the great thing. If it was something more serious, I’d kind of be a little more nervous. It’s something that’s not a big deal. Obviously, everyone likes to be healthy, and I’ve already had a year off. So I don’t need any more time, but it’s part of the game.”
By this point, everyone knows Nelson’s return to the field is imperative for the Packers' offense to recover from its 2015 spiral.
Last season, Nelson’s absence changed how defenses played the Packers. With no vertical threat on the field’s perimeter, opposing secondaries dropped one safety deep in coverage. The other moved closer to the line of scrimmage for run support.
The Packers were dared to throw downfield, and they rarely could.
A healthy Nelson doesn’t merely give the Packers an All-Pro receiver who caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014. He changes the offense’s dynamics, from running back Eddie Lacy, to fellow receiver Randall Cobb, to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Without Nelson, the Packers were too predictable. Their play-action passing game suffered. Big plays were hard to find. So Nelson’s absence Tuesday morning was a reminder of just how fragile the Packers hope really is as they enter another season.
The offense not only needs Nelson back, but as productive as ever.
“A lot of that was predicated on Jordy Nelson,” Rodgers said. “We had a lot of single-receiver, or two-receiver, max-protection plays with him and taking some shots down the field. When you’re hitting those 60-, 70-, 80-yard chunk plays, it’s going to make your play-action stats and averages and touchdowns look a lot better. Getting him back, and then also getting some other guys to do some of the same stuff so the pressure isn’t all on him to run those routes, is going to help us get back to where we need to be.
“He’s a special guy.”
Nelson’s absence comes with one silver lining. With him on the sideline, there are more reps for the Packers' younger receivers to build chemistry with Rodgers. The hope is they benefit from extra practice.
Camp’s opening day was a good start. Typically, defenses are ahead of offenses this time of year. That flipped Tuesday morning.
Receivers consistently caught passes downfield, frustrating their own secondary. There was Jeff Janis running behind defensive backs. Jared Abbrederis finding soft spots in zone. Davante Adams catching a pass over his shoulder. Rookie Trevor Davis making a leaping, one-handed catch.
From the sideline, Nelson noticed.
“I told some of the guys,” he said, “this is the best offensive practice I’ve seen Day 1 in all my years playing football.”
Early in camp, Rodgers said, it’s already clear there will be “a lot of competition” at receiver. Increased reps are beneficial, but most important is making sure the Packers top receiver is ready for the season.
In organized team activities, Nelson and Rodgers ran routes off to the side. Their workouts weren’t rigorous, usually no more than one practice period. The routes were run against no defense, but they were important steps for a receiver and quarterback reconnecting.
Rodgers said he and Nelson will need “probably a couple days” to regain their rhythm. That would be ideal, lessening the need for Nelson to return early in camp.
“We’re going to need a little bit of time,” Rodgers said. “Not necessarily game reps, but just some reps in practice. He’s going to need to feel press coverage again, and getting off of that and running and making plays and catches. I’m confident that he’ll get to a point where he’ll be ready to play when we need him.”
Until he reaches that point, nothing is certain. Nelson is 31 years old now. He hasn’t played a regular-season game in 18 months, hasn’t practiced in a year. Nobody, it seems, knows when his next practice will be.