There comes a point in every aging professional athlete's career where the player says "I can still go" and the team says "no thanks." Donald Driver and the Green Bay Packers have reached that point.
The franchise's career leader in every major receiving category has been naught but a spectator in four of Green Bay's last six games, manning a spot on the inactive list despite playing for a team that was remarkably thin at wide receiver for a stretch in the latter part of the season.
In the two games he did play, Driver was unable to record a catch, not even in the Packers' 55-7 route of the Titans on December 23. He last recorded a reception on November 11 in Detroit, and his last multi-catch game was in October against Jacksonville. The list of depressing statistics goes on.
Driver has been undeniably great as a Packer. The numbers speak for themselves. His career totals of 743 receptions, 10,137 yards, and 61 touchdowns exceed the career production of both John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, Hall of Famers. Legends of a different era, to be sure, but the numbers are there. In fact, Drivers numbers (743/10,137/61) actually compare quite favorably with recent Hall of Fame inductee Michael Irvin (750/11,904/65).
Fan outcry to Driver's shrinking role has been predictably vitriolic. One needs only to read a sampling of the comments on a recent story about a fan petition to get Driver on the field to get a grasp of how badly some fans would like to see him play. You can't fault the fans for passion, but there's no doubt that passion is misguided.
In the early part of training camp, I wondered if the Packers might have been better off cutting Driver in the offseason rather than prolonging what could be a slow decline. Now, I have no doubt that would have been the better move. Ted Thompson has always made a habit of getting rid of a player early rather than late, and this season the Packers have essentially done just that...except Driver is still on the roster.
The reason for the switch is obvious. Though fans may love to talk about how savvy Driver is as a receiver (and he is), three factors clearly play against him. First, though he is an experienced player, he's also not the speedster he once was. Old legs don't move quite so swiftly as young ones, and Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, and Jeremy Ross have all used their young legs to sprint past Driver on the depth chart.
Second, all the receivers the Packers have used instead of Driver have far more miles ahead of them than behind. Though they may never develop to the Pro Bowl level Driver once occupied, their upside for the next two to three years is far greater than that of Driver.
Finally, Driver's usefulness to the team as a whole has dropped significantly this year through his inability to contribute on special teams. Cobb, Boykin, and Ross have all seen time on special teams this year, and it's just been one more reason for Mike McCarthy to keep Driver inactive in the late part of the season.
Indeed, the decision to keep Driver inactive for Saturday's playoff tilt with Minnesota came down to just that factor: special teams contributions. Other players can cover punts and return kicks and block on returns, but not Driver. If you're a bit player, which Driver undoubtedly is at this point, you must contribute in multiple ways to survive. Driver can't, so he sits.
Painful though it may be, for both fans and the player himself, to see Driver sent out to pasture before he's ready, this is simply the way things work. Though some internet commenters might suggest otherwise, there is no ulterior motive here. If Driver could contribute meaningfully to this team, he'd be on the field. Unfortunately, that's not where he is as a player anymore. Where he is is all too obvious: sidelined, and seemingly destined to experience the last few games of his Packer career as a spectator rather than a contributor.