Does Donald Driver “deserve” a spot on the Packers’ playoff roster?
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There wasn’t much to upset Packers fans during Green Bay’s efficient dismantling of the Vikings in last week’s Wild Card round meeting. Clay Matthews accidentally recorded a sack, John Kuhn scored two touchdowns to the delight of people who love when people who shouldn’t touch the ball are given the ball, and Jermichael Finley even spared us from the fish-fin celebration thing that usually accompanies his pair of eight-yard receptions. Yet one of the few qualms that could be had with the Packers last week involved a player who wasn’t even on the field.
A sustained camera shot of an out-of-uniform Donald Driver—lacking his trademark smile—lent a somber few seconds to an otherwise upbeat and stress-free win, as he watched from the sidelines, inactive for the contest. It was the fourth time since Week 13 that Double D’s name appeared on the inactive list. While a “thumb injury” was responsible for previous shelving, the decision to keep Driver in street clothes last week was due to playoff rosters being pared down from 53 to 46.
Mike McCarthy’s decision to allow the 38-year-old, 14-year vet to succumb to roster reduction seemed to hit a nerve with a sizable portion of Packer Backers. After all, Driver’s résumé speaks for itself: Packers all-time records for both receptions and receiving yards, four Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl ring, 61 career touchdowns, three children’s books, a rock-solid catalog of regional McDonald’s commercials, a vaunted Dancing With The Stars title, and an immeasurable impact made through thousands of hours of charity work.
The exclusion has hoards of fans up in arms, claiming Driver has “earned” a spot on the playoff roster, and that he “deserves” to play. There’s no arguing the importance he has on the Green Bay Packers organization, which drafted the unknown receiver in the seventh round back in 1999. And his status as unabashed fan favorite isn’t being called into question—but the idea of handing one of the invaluable final spots on Green Bay’s playoff roster (where every game is a must-win) to a player with just eight receptions and 77 yards on the season should be far from a guaranteed.
Last week, the coveted last roster spot came down to either Driver or linebacker Terrell Manning. Used on special teams, Manning wound up recording two solo tackles while earning the game ball and “Big Hit” award among special teamers. Though a pair of tackles and some in-house, post-game awards aren’t exactly MVP credentials, Manning played a part in the win, however slight. Any player who plays a single down on special teams offers more use than someone who might play a snap if two receivers exit the game, even if that person is well-liked.
At receiver, current No. 5 wideout Jeremy Ross proved more useful than Driver could have, due to Ross’ ability to return kicks, which spared the increasingly valuable Randall Cobb (who, in essence, took Driver’s place in the lineup). Even Jeff Saturday—despite his age, nagging injuries, and “pulling himself” from the starting lineup (probably after being utterly ineffective and actually being benched)—was in uniform Saturday because he offers an emergency center to plug into Green Bay’s already injury-depleted and patchwork offensive line. As quiet as he is in the stat column, Ryan Taylor is a trusted blocking tight end to cycle in, as the O-line continues to show weakness and the Packers continue to try and establish a consistent run game. Tom Crabtree is too funny on Twitter to consider stripping of playing time.
Where the “earning a roster spot” talk should have ended was after training camp, when Driver evidently claimed a spot through a mixture of hard work, being in excellent shape, and, likely the tipping factor, the things he’d done in a Packers uniform during his more productive years. Pro sports can be a cold, heartless business, especially the NFL, in which veterans are waived each season to free up space under the salary cap or on the depth chart for that player’s counterpart.
Should Driver remain inactive for the remainder of the Packers playoff run, it shouldn’t be viewed as an insult. If Green Bay wins a Super Bowl without Driver needing to suit up, it doesn’t mean they won it without him. There’s no quantifying the significance the veteran wideout still has on the team, its fans, and the young receiving corps. Hell, maybe the team will feel it legitimately needs Double D—who probably has a big play or two left in the tank—in a future contest. But if help is needed elsewhere and, instead, Green Bay hands a spot to Driver to serve as a mascot and to reward him for work from earlier seasons, then it’s risking the present to protect the past.
As sad as it is to see the last-round draftee’s storied career near its conclusion as quietly as it began late last century, Driver’s inactive status might play a small part in helping one of the most beloved Packers of all time to truly go out on top, as a silent partner in a Super Bowl-winning team.