The oft-repeated refrain after the Divisional playoff loss to the New York Giants was that Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver was one of the few Packers who "came to play." While this is true, the fact that the Giants assigned a linebacker to cover him for almost the entire game speaks volumes.
Driver actually had one of his best games of the 2011 season against the Giants during the regular season. His second touchdown catch in that game is a crystallization of the value he still brings as an NFL football player.
The issue for the Packers isn't what Driver showed this year—it's very much about how football skills can diminish rapidly. There's an old adage in the game of football, one that Packers general manager Ted Thompson has adhered to pretty sturdily in his time as Packers GM: It's better to let a player go one year early rather than one year too late.
I'm pretty sure letting go of Driver this offseason would be letting go of him a year too early—but that is preferable to watching him go through the same motions Ravens fans watched Derrick Mason go through or Broncos fans watched Jerry Rice go through.
As they say, Father Time is undefeated.
The other component in this is the fact that the Packers have some young talent they need to get on the field. Randall Cobb looked excellent the last month of the season—when he was on the field. His explosiveness after the catch pops off the screen when you watch his tape, and he showed a knack for getting open against man coverage—and not with linebackers in coverage.
Then, of course, there are Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley waiting in the wings. Both players flashed in training camp last year, both players spent 2011 on the practice squad and both players received raises (via PackersNews.com) that put their salaries in-line with guys on the 53-man roster after other NFL teams came with offers. The Packers no doubt went ahead and paid them with the idea that at least one of them could seriously compete for a roster spot next year.
(One other thing that's worth noting—though a small matter in the whole scheme of things when it comes to Driver—is that both Borel and/or Gurley would instantly compete for jobs on special teams, where both flashed some ability in camp and preseason last year.)
The receiver position is so important to the Packers, simply because head coach Mike McCarthy's offense uses so many of them. As long as they employ the multiple wideout sets, Thompson and company will need to develop young receivers. Another year of Driver on the roster may pay dividends on the field or it may not.
What it will most certainly do is continue to stunt the growth of Cobb and company. Cobb in particular needs to play. Now.
Donald Driver is an all-time Packers great. Nothing will ever change that. But as Thompson showed in his dealing with Brett Favre, no player should be given special consideration for what he has done in the past. Thompson's job is to look forward and constantly improve the Packers as a football team. Bringing back Driver for the 2012 season, for the first time in his incredible career, starts to work against that purpose.
I have no doubt there are fans who feel strongly the other way on this. I completely understand where they are coming from. But the time has come for the Packers to say goodbye to Donald Driver.