GREEN BAY — Jordy Nelson is happily retired.
He, his wife Emily and their children are enjoying their post-NFL life, and even though plenty of talented wide receivers have played past Nelson’s current age of 35 – Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald is still going strong despite turning 37 before the 2020 season kicks off – Nelson hasn’t thought for a second about a comeback.
“We’re not coming back. There’s no doubt about that. We’re done,” the former Green Bay Packers star wideout said during an interview last week. “I’ve always laughed and talked to Emily about it – when you first get in the NFL and you’re performing very well, you’re underpaid; and then when you sign a big contract, you become overpaid. When you’re towards the end of your career, you get released and people say you’re too slow, you’ve lost a step, you can’t play anymore; and then apparently when you retire, everyone wants you to come back.
“I’m confused on what I need to do, so I’ll just stay at home. No one’s ever satisfied.”
Nelson certainly is. Dumped by the Packers after 10 years following the 2017 season, Nelson last played in 2018, in his one and only season with the Oakland Raiders. After being released by the Raiders, Nelson drew interest from three other teams – the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs – but not from the one team he would have happily played for again: The Packers.
When Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst showed no interest in reuniting Nelson with his football BFF and quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, Nelson decided to call it a career. He did a photo-op retire-as-a-Packer appearance during training camp, when Rodgers surely was secretly wishing the team would have offered his buddy a real contract instead of a ceremonial one. Nelson admitted that while he and Rodgers never got their hopes up, the two did have a handful of conversations about such a reunion before last season.
“I don’t know how serious they got, just because there’s only so much control that we had over it,” Nelson said. “There’s other people in the organization who make those decisions, make that decision on who’s on the team and who’s not. So I wasn’t going to dive into a hard-core conversation unless I knew there was a chance to come back.
“I think (Rodgers) knew deep down that if there was an opportunity right after Oakland, I probably would have (come back). But obviously it’s not up to us.”
In his 11 NFL seasons, Nelson caught 667 passes for 9,255 yards and 77 touchdowns (including playoffs). Of those, 604 receptions for 8,516 yards and 74 touchdowns came with the Packers – totals that include Nelson’s franchise single-season record 1,519 receiving yards in 2014; his nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers; and 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns during the 2016 season, when he earned the NFL’s comeback player of the year award after missing all of 2015 after tearing the ACL in his right knee.
Nelson’s last season in Green Bay coincided with Rodgers breaking his right collarbone in an early-season game at Minnesota. Nelson finished the 2017 season with 53 receptions for 482 yards and six touchdowns – catching 23 passes for 268 yards and six TDs in six games with Rodgers but only 30 passes for 214 yards and no TDs in the almost 10 games with backup Brett Hundley. The Packers cut him in March 2018 and signed aging tight end Jimmy Graham with the salary-cap room they saved by letting Nelson go.
Asked at the NFL scouting combine in February 2019 if he regretted cutting Nelson, Gutekunst replied, “I think there’s always times you look back and (question yourself), but in that particular instance, no, I don’t regret that at all. I think obviously Davante (Adams) was an emerging player that the offense needed to go through, and I think you saw what he was able to do last year.
“Those are tough decisions. Those are really tough decisions. But I think for our football team at that moment, it was the right decision. There’ll be other ones, and there’ll be ones I screw up. That’s just part of this. You’re going to have misses.”
While Nelson has no regrets, he still believes that, because of the connection he and Rodgers had, he could have helped the 2018 team, which went 6-9-1 in Mike McCarthy’s final season, as well as last year’s team, which went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game under rookie head coach Matt LaFleur but was up-and-down offensively, with the Packers finishing a middling 17th in passing offense and Rodgers posting the third-lowest passer rating of his career (95.4).
Rodgers’ red-zone numbers without Nelson the past two seasons have been particularly troubling. In 2018 and ’19 combined, Rodgers’ passer rating was 91.7 in the red zone, where he completed 73 of 139 passes (58.97%) for 510 yards with 32 touchdowns and three interceptions.
For comparison, his red-zone passer rating during his final full season with Nelson was 107.6 in 2016 (64 of 105, 382 yards, 31 TDs, no INTs).
Overall, during their 10 years together – with Nelson missing all of 2015 and Rodgers missing 16 total games with his broken collarbones in 2013 and ’17 – Rodgers completed 470 of the 705 passes he threw to Nelson (66.7%) for 6,919 yards (9.8 yards per attempt) with 65 touchdowns and nine interceptions – for a passer rating of 123.9.
“I definitely think I could have helped them. I don’t know what kind of player I’d be if I sat here and said, ‘No, I wouldn’t have been able to help them,’” said Nelson, who finished his Packers career ranked No. 3 all-time in regular-season receptions (550), No. 5 in yards (7,848) and second in touchdown receptions (69).
“I think the track record between Aaron and I, I think we could have been productive no matter what year it would have been. I think we proved it over the time, year-in and year-out. We were both very productive. And until proven otherwise, I would say yes, I would have been able to.”
Nelson also believes he could have helped those other teams that were interested in him last season, but that he and Emily discussed the pros and cons of trying to extend his career by a year or two while bouncing around to various teams. It would have been different had the Packers wanted him for one more year.
“Emily was on board the whole way, no matter what. If I wanted to continue to play after Oakland, she would have been on board. But we had conversations about it,” Nelson said. “I think as long as I was in Green Bay, I would have continued to play and play and play. But that obviously wasn’t the case.
“I didn’t need to continue to play to fulfill anything I wanted personally, so instead of moving around … If we went to Seattle, that maybe would have been one year, then it would have been Tennessee or Kansas City. Everything becomes a one-year thing from then on out, so I wasn’t going to start moving my family all around the country just so I could play football for six months.”
Instead, Nelson moved back to his home state of Kansas, where he works a few days a week on the family farm that his brother now runs full time. His kids attend the same grade school he and Emily went to, where his sister is a third-grade teacher. His only exposure to football last year was catch in the yard with son Royal; attending college games at his alma mater, Kansas State; and a couple of road trips to Green Bay and one to Dallas, when the Packers played the Cowboys and Nelson was able to see Rodgers, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, who signed with the Cowboys after the Packers chose not to re-sign him after the 2018 season.
“We haven’t second-guessed our decision at all,” Nelson said. “Our family transitioned very well back home to Kansas. Obviously the coronavirus shut a lot of things down (this spring), but I enjoyed last fall. I enjoyed going to K-State games every Saturday and tailgating with my family, doing what I did as a kid. We were able to make it to a few Green Bay games and go down to Dallas and watch Randall play and see him and his family, and we’re looking forward to doing it again now that he’s down in Houston and Green Bay plays down there again.
“We’ve had fun. I have not missed the game one bit. I miss some of the guys, but I think going to Oakland for that year allowed us to transition away from the guys a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Nelson will be watching – just like everyone else – to see how Rodgers plays in 2020 after the team used its first-round pick on his heir apparent, Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. For his part, Nelson believes Rodgers will be a man of his word and mentor – and challenge – Love just as he has with other backups.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Nelson said. “I think Aaron will handle it in a great way. I think he obviously knows the situation he went through (following Brett Favre) and he’ll remember it wasn’t a good situation. … But I think he knows how he wants to handle it. He’s always been one that with any backup quarterback he’s had, he’s going to try to help them improve. Because injuries do happen and if they do happen, you want somebody to step in and be productive.
“But he’ll also hold (Love) accountable like he does any other position. He’s going to make sure they know what to do, make sure they’re doing it correctly, doing it the way it needs to be done. He’ll be on him, there’s no doubt about it. Honestly, as a former player with Aaron and anyone who wants to be great, you want guys to be that way. That’s why I’ve never understood when Aaron gets criticized for the way he is a leader. People need to accept being challenged. And obviously being challenged by one of the greats helps as well. If you can get on that level, it’ll be beneficial for you.”