Jordy Nelson, one of the most beloved players in Green Bay Packers history, was released by the team on Tuesday.
GREEN BAY – In a fairy-tale world, receiver Jordy Nelson would hand in his Green Bay Packers helmet to the equipment guys at Lambeau Field and walk away from the game on his terms.
But it doesn’t always work that way in the NFL.
Nelson signed a two-year deal with the Oakland Raiders for a reported $15 million Thursday, just 48 hours after the Packers released him after 10 seasons in Green Bay.
The Packers jettisoned Nelson so they could clear $10.25 million of salary-cap room and sign free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson. The Packers offered a pay cut, but it was so steep Nelson had little option but to turn it down, knowing he could get a lot more somewhere else.
As tough as it might be for fans to see the Packers cut their hero, Nelson is not the first player to exit 1265 Lombardi Ave. with more to give to the game of football. And he won’t be the last.
If you look at just receivers, eight of the franchise’s top dozen in receiving yards went on to play for other teams after they were cut, traded or not re-signed by the Packers.
The only four to avoid it were Donald Driver, Sterling Sharpe, Don Hutson and Max McGee.
But the great Billy Howton? Traded by Vince Lombardi in 1959 after seven seasons.
The prolific Antonio Freeman? Cut after seven seasons, although he did return for one last season in 2003.
The explosive Greg Jennings? Allowed to walk in free agency after seven terrific years.
The productive James Jones? Allowed to walk in free agency after seven seasons, although he did return for one last season in 2015.
The ground-breaking Carroll Dale? Cut by Dan Devine in 1973 after eight years of catching Bart Starr deep passes.
“It’s a cold-hearted business,” Dale said from his home in Wise, Virginia. “But I was never mad at the Packers. In all my years, I had so much success. We won two Super Bowls. That’s what you remember.
“I feel fortunate to be part of all that. I spent five years with the Rams before I was traded to the Packers and we were 0-10 against them. If I could have picked a town to play in, Green Bay would have been it.”
Dale was relaying his experience and it’s possible Nelson will react differently and forever carry a grudge against the Packers. But Dale said all the winning that Nelson experienced with the team — nine playoff appearances, three NFC championship games, a Super Bowl ring — is what he probably will always savor.
Devine cut Dale at the end of training camp in ’73 after the roster had been set. Dale had had conversations with Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant about coaching when his playing days were over, but Grant picked him up off waivers and added Dale to the roster.
The Vikings went 12-2 and made it all the way to Super Bowl VIII, where they lost to the Miami Dolphins.
“After the Vikings picked me up, we won 10 straight games,” Dale recalled. “Two of those wins were over Green Bay.”
Freeman was let go for a similar reason as Nelson. The Packers needed his salary-cap money. His production was not meeting his massive salary and they asked for a huge cut.
It didn’t help that Freeman had been feuding with coach Mike Sherman. He refused the cut and was released. Midway through training camp he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
His Green Bay experience was tainted by the scrutiny he was receiving after signing a huge contract.
The last thing anyone ever thought was that Freeman would return to Green Bay. But after a year in Philadelphia, Sherman called and asked him to rejoin the Packers. Freeman did for the 2003 season and in ’07, he officially retired as a member of the Packers.
"I never envisioned coming back," Freeman said upon returning. "You have to take the situation as a blessing for both of us, because I was available and they were willing to welcome me back."
Despite his dispute with Sherman and estrangement from the Packers, Freeman not only returned for a year, he now has a good relationship with the organization and makes regular appearances at Lambeau Field and in Green Bay.
Jones hit free agency for a second time at age 29, but instead of being rewarded with a long-term contract after setting a career-high in receiving yards, the Packers ignored him and he wound up signing in Oakland.
Jones remembers the feeling of rejection when the Packers made it clear they didn’t want him back and said it never goes away.
“It hurts,” Jones said. “I was doing everything I could to come back. It’s the only place you’ve played. You still think you can play. You feel like you can give at least one more year. The pain doesn’t go away.”
Ultimately, though, most players understand the business aspect of the decisions and try to take the emotion out of it.
At the time, Jones was not receiving any interest from the Packers, Freeman tried to put it in perspective in an interview with the Journal Sentinel. The emotion of his own release wasn’t present anymore and he saw the bottom-line aspect of such decisions.
If the Packers could trade Brett Favre and cut Charles Woodson, they certainly could turn their back on Jones and release Nelson.
“This game is about dollars and cents,” Freeman said in 2013. “It’s about cap value. That’s what these decisions come down to. It doesn’t come down to if James was a nice guy or a great locker room guy. This is a business. This is Wall Street. This is Saks Fifth Avenue."
Jones doesn’t harbor any bitterness now and retired as a Packer. Jennings, on the other hand, hasn’t had much to do with the Packers since he left in free agency.
The guy with the biggest chip on his shoulder, Favre, was estranged from the team for years, but time healed the wounds and Favre came back to Lambeau Field to be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame and have his number retired.
Eventually, Nelson also will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. How his release affects his relationship with the organization will be determined in the coming years.
Nelson might not get an opportunity to stick it to the team that let him go the way Favre did in ’09 when he returned to Lambeau Field with the Vikings. The Packers and Raiders don’t play until 2019, so Nelson will have to make it past this season to play again in Lambeau Field.
For now, he’s just another receiver whose career likely will end in a different uniform.
Here's how other top Packers receivers finished their careers:
Packers years: 1999-2012.
Packers stats: 743 catches, 10,137 yards (13.6), 61 TDs.
Last team: Packers.
Packers years: 1978-86.
Packers stats: 530 catches, 9,656 yards (18.2), 49 TDs.
How left: Traded to Raiders for third-round and fourth-round conditional picks in 1987.
Post-Packers: 1987-93 (Raiders, Bills, Eagles, Rams).
Packers years: 1988-94.
Packers stats: 595 catches, 8,134 yards (13.7), 65 TDs.
How left: Cut in 1995 off-season after suffering career-ending neck injury in ’94.
Packers years: 1935-45.
Packers stats: 488 catches, 7991 yards (16.4), 99 TDs.
Last team: Packers.
Packers years: 1959-69.
Packers stats: 448 catches, 6,918 yards, 40 TDs.
How left: Traded to Washington in ’71 after spending 1970 coaching for the Los Angeles Rams.
Post-Packers: 1971 (Washington).
Packers years: 1995-2001; 2003.
Packers stats: 431 catches for 6,651 yards (15.4), 57 TDs.
How left: Cut in June of 2002.
Post-Packers: 2002-03 (Philadelphia, back to Packers).
Packers years: 2006-12.
Packers stats: 425 catches, 6,537 yards (15.4), 53 TDs.
How left: Allowed to leave in free agency in ’13.
Post-Packers: 2013-15 (Minnesota, Miami).
Packers years: 1954-67.
Packers stats: 345 catches, 6346 yards (18.4), 50 TDs.
Last team: Packers.
Packers years: 1952-58.
Packers stats: 303 catches, 5,581 (18.4), 43 TDs.
How left: Traded to Cleveland after Vince Lombardi became coach in ’59.
Post-Packers: 1959-63 (Cleveland, Dallas).
Packers years: 1965-72.
Packers stats: 275 catches, 5,422 yards (19.7), 35 TDs.
How left: Cut at end of training camp in ’73.
Post-Packers: ’73 (Minnesota).
Packers years: 2007-13; 2015.
Packers stats: 360 catches, 5,195 yards (14.4), 45 TDs.
How left: Allowed to leave in free agency in ’14.
Post-Packers: 2014-15 (Oakland, New York Giants, back to Packers).