But with the Packers entering 2010 with another deep wide-receiver corps, plus emerging tight end Jermichael Finley, Jennings admitted the honor “wasn’t even on the radar” early in the season.
“In my opinion, it was going to be a long shot because of the amount of talent we have at the receiver position and then including Jermichael (Finley),” Jennings said. “It was never an individual goal that I had set, like ‘I’m making the Pro Bowl this year,’ just simply because of that, honestly.”
Now, however, Jennings can honestly say he’s a Pro Bowler, earning the honor for the first time on Tuesday along with four teammates who are repeat selections.
The Packers have five Pro Bowlers for the first time since 2007, including three defensive starters for the first time since 1967 in safety Nick Collins, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson. In addition to Jennings on offense, left tackle Chad Clifton also was named to the NFC squad.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and cornerback Tramon Williams were chosen first alternates, while receiver Donald Driver, linebacker A.J. Hawk, nose tackle B.J. Raji and guard Josh Sitton also are alternates.
Jennings had posted a pair of 1,000-yard seasons each of the last two years and a 12-touchdown campaign in 2007 but had never received Pro Bowl recognition. But he’s been the league’s most productive receiver over the last 10 games after a bit of a slow start in 2010, averaging 98.5 yards per contest since Week 6, tops in the NFL over that span.
For the season, he ranks fifth in the league in yards (1,168) and tied for second in touchdowns, matching that career-high of 12 from three years ago. He also had his first three-TD game, at Minnesota in Week 11, which also was his fifth straight game with at least six receptions.
“I would definitely have to say it’s been the best stretch of my career so far,” Jennings said. “It’s been a culmination of a lot of things. The O-line has been doing great, protecting and keeping ‘A-Rod’ upright. He’s been putting the ball on point, and then obviously, my comrades, the other receivers, they’ve been making plays, taking a lot of pressure off myself and themselves as well. When you get an individual accolade like this, everyone looks at the individual, but it definitely takes more than just myself.”
Clifton has been one of those in charge of protecting Rodgers, and he has put together what the current coaching staff considers his best season on their watch as he made the Pro Bowl for the second time in four years (also 2007). This past week, he shut out Giants defensive Osi Umenyiora, who came into the game with double-digit sacks, and earlier in the year he allowed Vikings stalwart Jared Allen just one sack in two meetings.
That's part of the collective effort Jennings is referring to as his productivity is now a far cry from the 14 catches for 183 yards in the first five games. But it’s also not entirely coincidental that Jennings’ numbers jumped when Finley was lost for the season to a knee injury. The other receivers have picked up the slack as well, as Jennings, Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson all have at least 40 catches this year, the first time in team history that four Green Bay wide receivers have caught at least 40 passes in one season.
Jennings’ first Pro Bowl selection gets him on the board in that group behind Driver’s three (2002, ’06, ’07), but he expects the veteran leader’s reaction to be more celebratory than a reminder of where he ranks in the pecking order.
“He’s going to be just as excited as I am,” Jennings said. “He’s never bragged about his (Pro Bowl selections). In years past, he’s thought that I’ve been kind of robbed a little bit. But it is what it is. He’ll be excited, as will the other guys. We have that type of relationship where if one of us makes it, we all made it, because we know we all did our part to help that guy perform at a high level.”
The defensive players feel similarly, snagging three starting spots, which recognizes a unit that ranks second in the league in scoring defense and in the top quarter of the league in yards allowed for the second straight year.
Woodson and Collins both earned Pro Bowl selections for the third straight year, while Matthews made it for the second consecutive season.
For Woodson, it’s his seventh overall selection after being honored the first four years of his career in Oakland (1998-2001). The 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Woodson has registered career highs in tackles (97) and forced fumbles (five) this season, the forced fumbles being the most by a Green Bay player since linebacker/defensive end Keith McKenzie in 1999.
Collins is the first Green Bay safety to be so honored three straight years since LeRoy Butler (1996-98). He also hasn’t missed a game over the last three seasons, playing through various injuries, including this past week against the Giants when he played with a lot of pain in his injured ribs yet still recorded his third interception of the season plus a fumble recovery.
That toughness and dedication is part of his reputation now, Collins believes, with players and coaches around the league recognizing it.
“I think so. They know what type of player I am,” he said. “I want to be out there with my teammates and help the organization get wins. I feel like if I’m able to walk, I’m able to play. If I’m not bleeding and things aren’t broken, I feel I can go out there and help my team. If it’s just going out there a couple plays or starting, it doesn’t matter.”
Matthews has battled his share of injuries this season as well, missing one game to a strained hamstring and playing the entire second half of the season with a troublesome shin that had significantly limited his practice time for several weeks. Still, he is tied for third in the league with 12½ sacks and has forced two fumbles as well as returned his first career interception for a touchdown.
“Injuries are part of the game, and obviously I was fighting there for a little bit trying to make it through some games, which was pretty painful,” he said. “But everybody’s nicked, everybody’s wounded a little bit. It’s about fighting through it, and I feel like now I’m getting back to as close to 100 percent health as I can, and just at the right time too, hopefully making a playoff run. I’m going to keep playing the way I know how, injured or not, and hopefully that’s enough to help our team out.”
Opposing offenses have employed extra help to block Matthews much of the season, especially after he began the year with a pair of three-sack games, a first in team history. He’s been mentioned as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and eye-catching plays like last Sunday’s -- when he chased Giants running back Brandon Jacobs from behind for 20 yards, caught up to him, and punched the ball out -- have only added to his resume.
But Matthews said he’s not focused on the individual accolades, only on the team winning this week to qualify for the playoffs, and he expects to have to battle multiple blockers again to make his contribution.
“I know if I’m not getting double-teamed or getting extra attention, I’m not doing my job,” he said. “It’s part of the game. Hopefully I can be in the talks of great pass rushers, and it’s what everybody goes through. I look forward to the challenge and hopefully look forward to it for years to come.”
How many Pro Bowl Matthews might eventually play in is anyone’s guess. He’s the first Green Bay player to make it each of his first two seasons in the league since running back John Brockington nearly 40 years ago (1971-72).
All the Packers’ selections, though, even the first-timer Jennings, would just as soon sit this year’s game out if it means their season is still going. The 2011 Pro Bowl is slated for one week before the Super Bowl, on Jan. 30, in Hawaii, and anyone playing for the ultimate team prize obviously skips the Pacific festivities.
“That’s where my mindset is,” Jennings said, as his day off was winding down before three days of practice and preparation begin for this Sunday’s do-or-die game, “and I’m sure that’s where all the other guys’ mindset is.”
For the complete AFC and NFC Pro Bowl rosters, click here.