Edgar Bennett and the wide receiver corps laid the groundwork in July for what has become a landmark season for the unit in team record books.
New to coaching the position after tutoring the running backs since 2005, Bennett stood in front of his group on the day training camp opened and established the standard they would be held to, without fail. It was the standard to which he would be held, too.
“From the very first meeting, you want to discuss a lot of things,” Bennett said. “I knew going in these men were very talented, men of character, men with work ethic. This was an opportunity to emphasize our beliefs, our goals and to set our standard, period. And then set here’s how we get there. It started with our preparation and our attitude.”
A remarkably productive unit over recent years has entered the NFL stratosphere in 2011. According to the players, the environment within their daily meetings has also changed dramatically.
“Let me tell you what Edgar has brought to our room,” said Donald Driver, who has seen several approaches in his 14 seasons. “Every coach we’ve ever had has either played wide receiver in college or the NFL. Edgar is different, he played running back. A coach who played wide receiver is going to talk about protecting yourself or catching the ball and getting out of bounds.
“Edgar doesn’t talk about that. He’s used to getting down and dirty from when he was a running back. He doesn’t want you going out of bounds, he wants you to break tackles. He wants ball security and blocking. So now you see us breaking tackles and running down the field, and if you don’t, you get told something in our meeting room.”
Bennett set a rigid list of commandments. Attack a pass in your direction at its highest point. If the ball touches your hands, it should be caught. After the catch, be physical, particularly on the boundary. Nothing pains Bennett like a fumble – the ball must always be high and tight in a receiver’s grasp. Finally, if you weren’t the target, create lanes downfield as a blocker by hunting down a defender.
Bennett is familiar with his unit’s accomplishments so far this season and the praise from outside the building. He also knows the impact of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who Bennett considers the NFL’s best. One thing is certain: No one judges history on 11 games, even without a loss.
“We set goals entering the season far beyond what other people might say about us,” he said. “We want to be better than that. It only happens by actions. It can’t be just words.”
The wide receivers have accounted for 166 of Rodgers’ 260 completions. Against Denver in Week 4, Driver, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and James Jones all had TD receptions, the first time four wide receivers caught touchdowns in the same game in team history, and a first in the NFL since 1991.
Nelson is in the midst of a breakout season, and while big plays have been his trademark, a rugged 17-yard scoring catch-and-run vs. Minnesota in Week 10 showed Nelson’s grit.
“Edgar wants us to finish,” Nelson said. “His expectations are high and he holds you accountable to that. The mindset he brings is to finish every run. If we catch the ball on the sideline, he wants us to go up field.”
As Driver put it, maybe that’s getting “down and dirty” like a running back would. Bennett rushed for 3,353 hard-earned yards in his five seasons (’92-96) with the Packers, and his platoon of backs always ran with purpose.
“That just comes back to attitude,” he said. “You have to want to be physical, even with all the tools and talent.”
Bennett doesn’t speak of games, practices or the future without finding his way back to ball security. Keeping the ball “high and tight” is a priority that may have no equal. From Driver to practice-squad rookie Tori Gurley, all mentioned that protecting the football with the proper technique is drilled endlessly and a constant conversation point.
Bennett changed positions in February and, at the time, Coach Mike McCarthy and Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin suggested his new perspective would be a bonus to the wide receivers unit and continue Bennett’s evolution as an NFL coach.
“My starting point in this position was the faith they put in me and the players as well,” Bennett said. “There are relationships and trust in those meetings. As far as my view now, we can never forget we have to work. We can’t get comfortable or complacent. We have to earn it every day.”
Jones, who had a 65-yard TD at Detroit on Thanksgiving, believes complacency will always be an outsider under Bennett’s watch.
“He’s a teacher who will not accept average play, so he demands a lot out of you,” said Jones. “He knows how to push you and he will not take no for an answer.”
Comments like that make Bennett laugh at the notion that dealing with his current group might be more challenging than running backs, traditionally more blue collar in their approach than wide receivers. Driver, however, believes Bennett has climbed the social ladder.
“We definitely look better,” Driver said. “We definitely dress better … and we eat better when we go out to dinner on the road.”