Reprinted from Gameday program, Green Bay vs. St. Louis, Oct. 16, 2011.
At one time or another, they’ve all been Aaron Rodgers’ go-to guy in his three-plus seasons as an NFL starting quarterback.
Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings have made more remarkable plays with Rodgers than anyone can count. So many, in fact, that after the five pass-catchers were asked to recall the most memorable plays each has made individually with Rodgers, the quarterback in a separate interview picked completely different ones.
So rather than try to whittle it down to the one or two best, here’s a trip down memory lane with each of the five and their favorite plays, followed by Rodgers’ choices.
All the plays are special for certain reasons. Here are their explanations.
Jordy Nelson: Feb. 6, 2011, at Cowboys Stadium
Late in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLV, the Packers faced third-and-1 on the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. Nelson wasn’t even supposed to be in the route progression, but Rodgers had other ideas when he saw Steelers cornerback William Gay up at the line in press coverage.
“It was a screen play and I think Aaron said after the game he’s never thrown that ball before, not even in practice,” Nelson said. “Usually, I’m just running off and clearing out for the screen. He gave me a little signal and alerted me he was probably going to throw it.”
On the Packers’ previous possession, Rodgers tried to go deep to Nelson down the same sideline, but the ball went through the receivers’ arms. His only thought as the next ball came his way was redemption.
“I’d better catch it because I had dropped one earlier,” Nelson said, “and if I drop this one, it might be my last opportunity.”
The touchdown propelled Nelson to a great day, with nine catches for a Super Bowl franchise-record 140 yards.
Rodgers’ choice: Dec. 26, 2010, at Lambeau Field
Against the New York Giants, the Packers were playing what became the first of six straight win-or-go-home games. On the first play of the Packers’ second possession, Nelson got free over the middle on a play-action pass for an 80-yard touchdown.
This time, he was the primary read and no special signal was needed.
“That meant a little bit more to me because that was my first game back after my second concussion,” said Rodgers, who went on to throw for 404 yards and four TDs to start Green Bay’s unforgettable run to the title. “He showed that incredible speed he has. He’s deceptively fast. He turned on the afterburners and made those other guys look slow.”
Jermichael Finley: Sept. 25, 2011, at Soldier Field
Returning to the stadium where he had torched the Bears for nine catches and 115 yards in Week 3 the previous year -- before his season ended due to a knee injury two games later -- Finley already had two TD receptions when the Packers faced third-and-9 on the Chicago 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Finley’s third TD grab of the day was a thing of beauty, a fade he soared into the air to haul in.
“A guy was bumping me under and there was another covering me over the top,” Finley said. “He just lobbed it over the top and let me jump for it.”
Rodgers looked left at first and then came back to Finley on the right so as not to give away his intentions too soon. The touchdown put the Packers ahead 27-10 in an eventual 27-17 win.
“I told him in the huddle I might throw it up to him,” Rodgers said. “I threw it a little higher than I wanted, but he makes a catch like that look so easy.”
Rodgers’ choice: Oct. 3, 2010, at Lambeau Field
The Lions and Packers were tied 7-7 early in the second quarter. It was third-and-goal for Green Bay on the 13.
Finley released straight up the middle of the field and, at first glance, with linebacker Julian Peterson fronting him and two Detroit defensive backs manning the back of the end zone, there didn’t appear to be an opening. Rodgers found one.
“The ball was just over the arm of Peterson who was covering him, and it was really tight coverage,” Rodgers said. “That’s one of those plays where you’re really excited about what you just did, and it wouldn’t have happened without a great route and great catch by him.”
James Jones: Nov. 28, 2010, at the Georgia Dome
The Packers trailed the Falcons 17-10 with just over two minutes to go and faced fourth-and-1 on the Atlanta 21. The play broke down, Rodgers scrambled around and then improvised by shoveling the ball to Jones, who darted up the middle of the field all the way to the 3-yard line.
“He made like three or four guys miss, I made a couple of guys miss. That’s a play that stands out, just his athletic ability,” Jones said. “To shovel it like that, it wasn’t even a shovel play. He was just on the fly being creative. Heck of a play.”
The Packers eventually scored to tie the game, and even though the Falcons ultimately prevailed, the 90-yard TD drive with the game on the line proved what this offense could do with its back against the wall.
“They jumped offside, so we would have gotten the first down anyway,” Rodgers said. “But I ducked under a couple of guys and shoveled it. Pretty cool.”
Rodgers’ choice: Nov. 8, 2009, at Raymond James Stadium
On the Packers’ second play of the game, it was second-and-4 from their own 26. Jones beat his Tampa Bay defender off the line of scrimmage and never stopped running. The 74-yard touchdown is the longest play Rodgers and Jones have connected on, which is why the quarterback likes it, even though Green Bay eventually lost the game.
“He ran a streak, beat the guy, the guy fell and he was cruising into the end zone to start off the game,” Rodgers said. “That was one of only two or three big gains we had in that game.”
Donald Driver: Sept. 20, 2009, at Lambeau Field
Late in the first quarter, the Packers trailed visiting Cincinnati 7-0 and faced third-and-goal from the 3. Rodgers was in the shotgun.
Driver ran a pivot route, first cutting inside and then back outside toward the front pylon of the end zone. Nelson was running a similar route toward the back pylon on the same side.
As Rodgers scrambled, Driver was almost all the way out of bounds by the time the ball came, and he caught it while falling backwards and tip-toeing to make sure his feet were in as he was leveled by a Bengals player.
“I think it was supposed to go to Jordy,” Driver said. “He kept looking and kept pumping, and he threw it between me, Jordy and two defenders. That was probably the best throw I’ve seen him make with me. Jordy said I stole his touchdown. I apologized for it, though.”
Rodgers’ choice: Nov. 26, 2009, at Ford Field
Rodgers and Driver were having their best day together on this Thanksgiving against the Lions. They had connected on a 68-yard bomb late in the first quarter to set up a touchdown, and on a 45-yard play to open a third-quarter drive that led to a third-and-5 from the Detroit 7.
The Packers were leading just 13-7 at the time, and the Lions decided to blitz. The young QB and the veteran wideout fortunately were on the same page.
“There was an unspoken trust between the two of us that he was going to stop and I was going to throw it in a certain spot,” Rodgers said. “We embraced on that and it was just this knowledge that … that was a special play.”
The touchdown put a capper on Driver’s seven-catch, 142-yard game, his best day statistically with Rodgers as his quarterback. It also won him the “Golden Gobbler” award from FOX sports.
Greg Jennings: Sept. 28, 2008, at Raymond James Stadium
Late in the third quarter, the Packers trailed the Buccaneers 20-7 and faced third-and-16 from the Tampa Bay 48.
On the previous series, Rodgers had injured his shoulder when he dove and reached the ball out at the end of a scramble. Then, one play before this third-and-long, he tried to throw a screen pass to Ryan Grant and ended up throwing it right into the ground because his arm hurt so much.
“We ran all-go and they ran “Cover Four” and I just said screw it, I’m going to throw it as far as I can and see what happens,” said Rodgers, who was making just the fourth start of his career.
Jennings ran a seam route on the right side, the ball was on a rope between defenders, and Jennings never had to break stride. His new quarterback had shown him something.
“That’s the tightest window that I’ve probably caught a ball and was able to score,” Jennings said. “We knew his talent, but that was when I was like, OK, this guy has a big-time gun. A big-time gun. A lot of quarterbacks can’t make that throw.
“If the ball had a little less velocity, it’s picked. If it’s too high or too low, it’s incomplete. I told him it was a sick throw. I did.”
Rodgers eventually came out of the game and the Packers eventually lost, but that play was one he’ll never forget, either.
“I think that’s one of my top five throws ever, because of the circumstances of the type of injury I sustained, which didn’t allow me to feel good for six, seven weeks,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t feel like celebrating, though, because as I threw it, I was in so much pain I just went to the sideline and knew my day was probably over at that point.”
Rodgers’ choice: Sept. 13, 2009, at Lambeau Field
In the season opener in prime time against the Bears, the Packers trailed 15-13 with 1:18 left. It was third-and-1 at midfield.
Chicago was playing the run with just one safety deep, and Jennings was one-on-one on the left side with cornerback Nathan Vasher, beating him for a 50-yard TD.
“He ran a post on him and ran a great route,” Rodgers said. “Luckily I was able to get enough on the fake to slow down (linebacker) Nick Roach off the edge, because he was unblocked. I put it in a good spot and we won the game.”
So there you have it. The five top plays picked by his receivers, and the top five picked by Rodgers.
Asked which of the 10 meant the most to him, Rodgers again veered in another direction, discussing two others.
There was the 61-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Driver against San Francisco at Lambeau Field last season, when seemingly every 49ers defender had a chance to bring him down.
There was also the third-and-10 from Green Bay’s own 25 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV, and the laser beam he fired to Jennings just past the fingertips of cornerback Ike Taylor for a 31-yard gain. The Packers only led 28-25 at the time and were in danger of giving up the ball deep in their own territory. Instead they drove for a field goal that provided the game’s final margin.
“Donald broke about six tackles, including Andrew Quarless, our tight end, who was trying to tackle him,” Rodgers said with a smile. “In the Super Bowl, that was a big first down for us. A big-time throw, big-time route and catch.
“Those two are two of the best plays I’ve ever been a part of.”
In all, a dynamic dozen.