Young receivers make an impact

Greg Jennings and Donald Driver celebrate a TD.

Humble Jennings, Jones have thrived in Packers offense

What changed from 2005 at 1265?

Well, a lot. The coach. The general manager. The players. The culture.

But for those scratching their heads in search of specific justification for the Green Bay Packers' remarkable two-year turnaround, just close your eyes and recall two tense April nights, one year apart. It was about 8 p.m. and you were flipping back and forth between ESPN and NFL Network, judging the draft guru-ness of Mel Kiper Jr. and Mike Mayock. Hmm, tough call. The NFL Draft Bottom Line scrolled to a blank bar for a split-second and "Current Selection" began to flash. Your heart skipped a beat. A name flashed the screen and for the next 10 hours you attacked Google with anger and confusion, while periodically pinching yourself and asking, "How could Ted Thompson do this?"

These days Packer fans are pinching themselves for different reasons.

Green Bay is 10-1 and Brett Favre is having his best season ever. Second and third wide receivers Greg Jennings and James Jones are major reasons why. Both were unknown, unpopular first day draft picks by Thompson that seemed destined as long-term projects to develop with Aaron Rodgers.

So much for that. The duo has re-energized Favre's career, relieved Donald Driver of constant double-teaming and bedazzled defenses that often know exactly what the Packers' ‘O' is going to run yet still can't stop it: the sign of an unstoppable offense.

After missing Green Bay's first two games with a hamstring injury, Jennings is on pace for a season of 972 yards and 14 touchdowns. Still, statistics are an injustice to the true impact the soft-spoken Jennings has made. Without Jennings' slant-turned-57-yard touchdown against San Diego, his 60-yard score at Kansas City when the Packers were down 22-16 with 3:13 left, and a walk-off grand slam 82-yard bomb against his cousin (Ian Gold) and the Denver Broncos, who knows where the Packers stand.

All three plays have turned the AFC West into a .500 mess. All three plays transcended the attitude within the Packers' locker room. All three plays drastically lifted the team's spirit and confidence to a mid-season stratosphere not seen since Chris Jacke's 53-yard overtime field goal against San Francisco 11 years ago.

With his right ankle finally 100 percent, Jennings' deceptive sudden quickness is demoralizing teams on slant routes - a quality Thompson noticed in Jennings and Jones. Corners are forced to honor Jennings' deep ball ability, creating space for him to work underneath the secondary. Even when DBs are in bump-and-run position Jennings' first step routinely beats the jam. Inside and out. Travis Fisher's jock strap is probably still laying in the Lions' end zone after Jennings' jitter-cut to the outside on a third quarter four-yard touchdown.

And you don't see Jennings telling reporters, "getcha popcorn ready."

Unlike '96 when injuries to Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks shoved Derrick Mayes and Desmond Howard among others into leading receiving roles at Dallas, the Packers' Big Five enters Thursday's Texas Showdown at full strength. A healthy wide receiving unit has allowed James Jones to operate against nickel cornerbacks and the occasional linebacker. The dangerously sneaky slot receiver is on pace to finish the season with 60 catches and 864 yards. No Packers third wide receiver has ever finished with that many receptions.

Like Jennings in 2006, Jones has transferred a lights-out inaugural training camp into regular season production- a transition the likes of Mayes, Charles Lee and Robert Ferguson never pulled off. More impressive is Jones' character. The man has layers. The only blemish on Green Bay's record was a result of Jones' two first half fumbles against Chicago. Without them the Packers may have built a 31-7 halftime lead and the angry old '72ers in Miami would be sleeping even less than they are now. Instead Jones was benched for most of the second half in his first nationally televised game. The embarrassment proved brief. Two games later, Jones burned Champ Bailey for a 79-yard touchdown. Confidence, recharged. On Thursday Jones feasted on Detroit's defense for 75 yards on five grabs.

And you don't see Jones telling reporters, "if they make it to Arizona, we'll see them again," following 21-point losses.

Jennings and Jones (and their mentor, Driver) sure resonate a different aura than Terrell Owens and Patrick Crayton, breaking the brashness usually glorified at the wide receiver position. It's workmanship instead of showmanship.

"We were just executing real well," Jones said after Thursday's win. "That's how we practice. If we were to play the Detroit Lions on Tuesday we probably would have done the same thing because we practice that way. 10-1 don't get you no rings, so we have to keep it going."

Added Jennings: "We know the game is going to be thrown on our shoulders. We go four-wide and five-wide so we know there are a lot of opportunities to make plays. They're opportunities that are going to be on us. If we don't make those plays, we don't progress as an offense."

Donald Driver feels this progression more than anyone.

After Javon Walker tore his ACL in the 2005 opener, Robert Ferguson and Antonio Chatman were thrust into the No. 2 and No. 3 WR roles. Dysfunction ensued. Defenses encased Driver in weekly double-teams, Favre forced weekly interceptions, the Packers went 4-12 and the Mike Sherman era was axed.

Ferguson and Chatman could not diversify Green Bay's passing game. Ferguson only caught 27 balls for 366 yards and three scores, while Chatman had 549 yards on 49 receptions with four touchdowns. No other wide receiver had more than seven catches on that team, as Driver accounted for 23 percent of the entire offense's yard production. The emergence of Jennings and Jones has trimmed that figure to 19 percent, as all five wide receivers have reached double-digit receptions.

The more telling stat? Favre only has eight picks through 11 games this season. At this point in '05 he had 19. As Favre said on the sideline during Super Bowl XXXI, "Everybody's open." The chemistry Favre was searching for all training camp is clicking at an even faster pace than it was that season.

Why? Greg Jennings and James Jones have changed the identity of the Packers' offense ... without flapping an ego in front of the camera.

Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University and a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.

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