|Donald Driver, a 14-year veteran, has played just 67 snaps thus far this season. (US Presswire)|
This hasn't been the encore Donald Driver was expecting.
After winning the 14th season of TV's “Dancing With the Stars” competition last May, Driver returned to Green Bay, agreed to restructure his contract to remain a Packer at a lower salary, and enjoyed a productive training camp where his every move, catch, shimmy and smile was exalted by the adoring Packer faithful.
That was all great.
But then the regular season began, and Driver faded from the Packers offense like an old photograph. In the season opener, at Lambeau Field, Driver didn't appear in the game until the final offensive series -- when he entered to thunderous cheers -– and ran routes for the last three snaps. That was the playing-time nadir for the 14-year veteran, but it hasn't gotten much better since.
Through seven games, Driver's played a total of 67 snaps, by far the lowest among the team's wide receivers besides undrafted rookie Jarrett Boykin, who's only been active for two games. Driver has just four catches for 45 yards and one touchdown.
But you won't find the 37-year-old, former seventh-round draft pick who stole cars as a Houston youth bellyaching about playing time.
“I don't think I can complain,” Driver said Wednesday at his locker, wearing the same sparkling smile as always. “The most I complained was when I was a child. That's when I struggled more than anything else. This is just a setback.
“If you look at the last couple years, my snaps have been reduced and they've been really reduced this year. It's not a bad thing -- there are a lot of guys playing well.”
Indeed. Even with top WR Greg Jennings sidelined for four games with a groin injury, Green Bay's stable of thoroughbred wideouts has been productive enough to render the Packers' all-time leading receiver unneeded surplus. In the last two games alone, wins at Houston and at St. Louis, WRs Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb have caught a combined 41 passes for 420 yards and eight touchdowns.
And yet, there's Driver grabbing Cobb, the second-year playmaker who has usurped his own spot in the slot, and slapping him on the helmet after Cobb's 39-yard touchdown reception clinched the win over the Rams last Sunday. There's Driver, seemingly tethered to the sidelines, helmet on, watching intently, ready and waiting to cash in on the dwindling chances he has left in his career.
“Week to week, if opportunity presents itself, I have to be ready to play,” he said. “I'll be ready when that day comes.”
When asked if he thinks there's still a plan for him this season, a place for him in this dynamic passing offense that hasn't faltered without him or Jennings, Driver paused.
“I don't know, I hope so,” he said. “I hope they haven't completely taken me out of the playbook.”
His Week 2 touchdown against the Bears, a precise, 26-yard pass QB Aaron Rodgers threaded between linebackers and defensive backs, showed Driver still has a place in the playbook. It was vintage Driver, being in the right place at the right time, and snagging a critical score.
But the next week, Driver displayed his mortality when he couldn't hold onto a high fastball from Rodgers in the end zone at Seattle. He was pulled from the game after the drop. Just like that.
Was Driver ready for such a drastic reduction in responsibility, one year after he was a 15-game starter?
“No, I don't think you ever expect your role to be this way,” he said. “I think it happens, it transitions to that at a certain point. Mine did, and I think you have to be OK with it. When you're OK with it, everyone else around you will be OK with it.”
To the public, in the media, Driver is irrepressibly positive. He has no regrets about coming back at a reduced salary to stand on the sideline and serve as a mentor for Cobb, Boykin and others. The cut-rate snap numbers and shrunken statistics pale in comparison to the ultimate team goals, and to the affirmation he feels when 70,000 Packers fans cheer him on.
“When I came back, it was all for the opportunity to win another Super Bowl and for the fans,” Driver said. “It's hard to leave fans who've supported you throughout your career, and they supported me throughout the process, especially this offseason with Dancing with the Stars, and you can't let them go. Every time I catch the ball in that stadium, it goes crazy.
“I've never been all about myself. I've always said it doesn't matter how many balls you catch or how many yards you get, as long as you win games and win championships, that's what people are going to always remember. No one's going to remember how many thousand-yard seasons I had, no one cares about that. They know how many Super Bowls I've won and that's what matters.”
So far, that's one and counting. But, really Donald, no one cares about all those statistics?
“Probably my family,” said Driver, laughing and flashing that mega-watt smile once more.