On the field and through his community work, Donald Driver speaks volumes as a leader. The respect he has earned among his teammates and the love he has won from fans speak to Driver's positive and infectious personality. And his career statistics (No. 2 in Green Bay Packers history in receiving yards; No. 4 in TD receptions) speak for themselves.
But, on the cusp of his thirteenth NFL season, it's time to suggest the unspeakable: this is the year to take Donald Driver out of the starting lineup.
There's no doubt his numbers took a nosedive during the 2010 campaign. After a streak of six seasons in which he caught at least 70 balls for over 1,000 yards, Driver only snagged 51 passes for 565 yards last year.
Although this precipitous slide is cause for concern, one school of thought contends that Driver—still a workout warrior who remains highly motivated by his pursuit of Green Bay's all-time receiving records—can indeed bounce back with another sterling season. Driver, after all, has never been short on drive.
Unfortunately, the sobering fact is that once an elite wide receiver's numbers start to fall, they rarely perk back up. With a few superhuman exceptions (Jerry Rice chief among them), wide receivers' productivity levels show little "bounce back" once they fall off the 1,000-yard plateau.
With the help of Pro-Football-Reference.com, let's look at a few recent examples of receivers who had long careers in the NFL that came to rather abrupt ends.
Marvin Harrison (Colts) Another slightly built receiver, Harrison had a string of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from 1999 to 2006. In his injury-shortened 2007 season, he had 247 yards receiving. And then, after one more year in the NFL, Harrison retired.
Rod Smith (Broncos) From 1997-2005, Smith notched 1,000-yard campaigns in eight of those nine seasons. In 2006, his receiving yards fell to 512 yards. He retired after that season.
Tim Brown (Raiders) From 1993-2001, this famous iron man gained 1,000 yards receiving for nine consecutive seasons. He slipped below that mark in the 2002 campaign, and then, after two subsequent years of decline, retired.
Cris Carter (Vikings) From 1993-2000, Carter enjoyed a streak of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. In 2001, his numbers dipped below that line to 871 yards. One year beyond that, Carter retired.
What's particularly telling is the age of these receivers when they fell below the 1,000-yard mark. In 2007, Harrison was 35. In 2006, Smith was 36. In 2002, Brown was 36. In 2001, Carter was 36.
Donald Driver turned 36 in February of this year—four days before the Super Bowl, a game he could not finish because of a high ankle sprain.
Aside from the fact that Driver is on the sharp downside of his career, his relegation to a supporting role is also needed to further develop younger players. Given the uncertainty of James Jones' future in Green Bay, the heir apparent is Jordy Nelson.
It was Nelson, of course, who famously came on in relief after Driver's injury during Super Bowl XLV. In a coming-out party of sorts, Nelson racked up 9 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown—numbers that would have been even higher without a handful of drops.
But even before the Big Game, Nelson was beginning to steal catches from Driver. Looking at the last two games of the regular season and the three postseason games leading up to the Super Bowl, Nelson amassed 18 receptions for 309 yards (17 yards/rec). In those same games, Driver nabbed 15 catches for 170 yards (11 yards/rec).
With the majority of the starts, Driver had more opportunities but Nelson made the most of his time on the field and produced at an impressive and efficient clip. In 2010, Nelson averaged almost 13 yards per reception, while Driver was a shade above 11 yards per catch.
According to Football Outsiders, Driver was targeted 84 times but snared only 51 passes, for a "catch percentage" of 61%. Nelson, meanwhile, was thrown to 64 times and turned 45 of those attempts into catches, good for 70 percent. (Please note that this does not distinguish between legitimate drops by the receiver and poor throws by the quarterback.)
The disparity between the players in 2010 is even more glaring under the light of Football Outsiders' homegrown "DVOA" (Defense-adjusted Value over Average) formula—a "smart" statistic to calculate a player's success in a given situation as compared to the league's average player in that same situation. It's a way of showing a player's "value" per play. Nelson scored a +9.8%, ranking an impressive 22nd in the league. Driver, meanwhile, was -8.7% and 68th in the NFL.
Finally, the most revelatory numbers from 2010 are "yards after catch," a statistic in which Driver once was among the NFL's elite. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the elusive Driver placed 6th in the league in YAC in 2006, and 10th in 2007.
Last season, however, Driver compiled only 180 YAC on his 51 receptions (3.5 YAC on average)—a marked decline. In contrast, Jordy Nelson piled up 257 YAC on 45 receptions (5.7 YAC average) in 2010. These numbers seem to confirm what the eye tells the viewer: Nelson is ready to become a big-time player in the NFL.
The upshot? Based on historical career trajectory of comparable top-flight receivers and the emergence of Nelson as a more impactful player, the odds say that 2011 is the year Donald Driver takes a greatly diminished role in the Packers offense.
The odds say that time has caught up to Driver and that he would serve the Packers best as a revered mentor and a fourth/fifth receiving option (behind Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Nelson, or even rookie Randall Cobb).
The odds say that explosive plays—like last year's signature 61-yard TD romp against the 49ers—will now be far and few between.
Then again, Driver beat the odds when he survived homelessness on the mean streets of Houston to become a decorated prep athlete. Driver beat the odds when he went from being an after-thought 213th pick in the 1999 Draft to a roster spot on the Green Bay Packers.
Driver beat the odds when he went from being a "track guy" with springs in his shoes to landing a sure place in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame as one of the most productive—and most popular—players in the franchise's 92-year history.
Maybe Driver will beat the odds again in 2011.