At first glance, it would seem to require a lot of faith for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to make eye contact with Swain at the line of scrimmage, check to the slant route, and then whip it out there from the shotgun, counting on a 25-year-old with all of two NFL receptions to his name at that point to be in the right spot and make the play.
But Swain didn’t become a reliable fifth receiver, and develop that kind of rapport with a Pro Bowl quarterback, overnight.
Drafted in the seventh round in 2008, Swain didn’t make the team as a rookie and spent that season on the practice squad. The following spring, dedicating himself to his first offseason program as a professional, Swain got stronger and polished his fundamentals, and he made the team as a fifth receiver in 2009 due in large part to his ability to contribute on special teams.
A torn ACL in his knee in Week 7 last year ended his season prematurely, but he attacked his rehabilitation with a drive similar to that from the previous offseason program, and he made the team again this year as the No. 5 receiver amidst stiff competition from a number of young prospects.
“He’s really a tireless worker when it comes to preparing himself,” receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. “A year ago when he was healthy getting ready for his second year, he had a great offseason in terms of getting stronger in the weight room. He came back with an awful lot of confidence and it showed up.
“I just think he had the determination to get back to where he was.”
All along, Swain slowly but surely has earned the confidence of those around him. He’s had three training camps to catch passes from Rodgers, always being one of the first guys to step in for a rep if one of the top four receivers is taking a break.
He reprised his special-teams role again this season, and he finally recorded that long-awaited first NFL reception in Week 8 against the Jets. With Donald Driver sidelined by a quadriceps injury, Swain snagged a 12-yard pass from Rodgers late in the second quarter.
He added his second career catch the next week against the Cowboys. Then at Minnesota following the bye, he was in position for a couple of potentially big plays.
“He was open on a couple routes against Minnesota when he was in the game,” Robinson said. “He ran a couple really nice routes. Didn’t get the ball, but he was open.”
Those plays, which the offense viewed in the film room, made it no surprise to Swain that Rodgers called his number on the Packers’ first play of the second quarter in Atlanta. With the offense in its “Big Five” formation with all five receivers split wide, Rodgers got the ball out to his right in a hurry. Swain not only made the catch, he swiftly split two defenders converging to make the tackle and took off up the right sideline.
“He knows that I know that I’m on the same page with him,” Swain said of Rodgers. “When he looks over there and gives a check, he’s confident in knowing we’re going to do the right thing out there. The more repetitions you can take with a quarterback and getting on the same page just makes everything more comfortable.”
Swain gained 31 yards on the play, and the offense benefited from 15 more when Atlanta safety William Moore hit Swain late out of bounds.
“It’s one thing to make a catch, that’s obviously job No. 1,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “But then when you can make somebody miss and you can turn it into something bigger, that’s something real good. I liked what he did.”
Swain added a 9-yard catch on the first snap of the third quarter, again out of the “Big Five” formation, increasing his season totals to four receptions for 54 yards. The Packers went five-wide more against the Falcons than at any time this season, and even though that’s no guarantee of more work to come for Swain – the primary sets in the game plan will change depending on the opponent, week to week – making an impact like he did has him all the more ready if additional opportunities come his way.
“Confidence level is definitely a big factor, especially coming to the NFL from college,” Swain said. “You have to gain that confidence that once you step on the field you’re going to be solid in catching the ball and turning it upfield. Definitely getting that first catch out of the way is an ice breaker, and confidence comes as you play more.”
Swain continues to be a regular contributor on special teams, with five coverage tackles this season, one more than in his abbreviated 2009 campaign. But like any player who makes his way onto a roster via special teams, he’s always competing for more snaps from scrimmage.
As Swain knows, that’s tough duty in Green Bay with a receiving corps featuring Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. But he’s been up against that ever since his arrival, and all the while he has learned the offense as best he can and waited for a chance to capitalize on.
After Sunday, perhaps additional chances are forthcoming.
“Brett’s a smart, efficient football player,” Robinson said. “He runs routes well, he has good hands, and he understands what we’re doing. You don’t see him in a lot of different spots, but he can play all of them. He can play inside, he can play outside.
“I’m sure he was happy to have a couple come his way, and it was good to see him catch that thing and see him be explosive after the catch, burst through there and turn it into a big play. I’m sure he’s hungry for even more of those.”