Donald Driver – classy man and teammate – would like to play until he’s 40

Could this be the final season of Donald Driver's illustrious career? Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Is there anyone better to talk about than Donald Driver?

Well, given the fact that there’s been so much attention given him the past couple of days, it’s time to consider the aging one.

Yes, at 36, Donald Driver is getting long in tooth, but certainly not in enthusiasm. The question being floated is whether Driver will continue with the Packers until his final day in the league … given that he says he wants to play until he’s 40 makes that question problematic down the road. Still at number one on the Packers depth chart one game into preseason doesn’t guarantee anything, especially with the breadth and depth of talent in the receiving corps this season.

However, we can probably say that, without any unforeseen circumstances, Driver will line up as the starting receiver when the Packers host the New Orleans Saints Sept. 8.

The question that won’t be answered until the season unfolds is the amount of playing time he will receive. Injuries and a drop-off in production last year are concerns, but nothing about which to raise the red flag … at least in my opinion. Granted, the drop in production last season was due to nagging injuries.

The real question is whether Coach Mike McCarthy can utilize Driver appropriately to keep him healthy AND productive.

We probably won’t seen the 1,000 yard seasons from Driver anymore, but if he’s played in a platoon-type situation, there’s no reason he can’t have the 40- to 50-catch, 500- to 600-yard seasons, which would be just fine … we all know that there are plenty of players in the Packers stable who can match those numbers.

With him standing just 42 yards from the precipice of a great Packers record – that of overthrowing James Lofton as franchise record holder in career receiving yards (9,656) – is something that will long be remembered and a milestone that Driver should be able to continue to improve upon – if the Packers want to continue down the Driver road. Number 80 already claimed ownership of the team career reception record last year (698).

In a beautiful article posted by Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee, Driver has said he doesn’t have any intention of a Brett Favre-like departure from the Packers: “I don’t want that,” Driver told Wilde. “For me, just being around the people upstairs, from (former general manager and team president) Ron Wolf and Bob Harlan to now (current president and GM) Mark Murphy and Ted (Thompson), do I think it’ll ever get to that point? No. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I’m so bitter and I’m so upset at those guys. I think I can walk away, give those guys a big hug and say, ‘Hey, I appreciate it,’ and retire and put the cleats on the shelf and have some fun.”

That’s certainly how Packers fans want it to end. There’s no way they will tolerate another Favre folly and for someone like fan-favorite Driver, it most likely there will be a harmonious parting … as it should be.

Donald Driver is still at the top of the list with Greg Jennings among Packers receivers. Raymond T. Rivard photgraph

“The humble guy that walked in here in ’99, laughing and joking with a smile on his face and not mad at the world for anything, that’s the same way I want to go out. I want to be the same, happy-go-lucky person. I don’t want any pressure on me where I’ve got to be mad when I walk away, where I go, ‘I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have done that.’ I want to walk away happy knowing I’ve done everything possible.”

So, how long will the Packers continue their love affair with Driver? Will it be for another four years? Probably not. Will it be at least one more season? Most likely.
After that point, there will likely be plenty of soul-searching by Driver.

He will have to ask himself just when is it time to step away? That’s a question all the great players have to answer. We’re hoping Driver does it before the skills erode to the point where he steps away as a shell of his former self.

Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said Wednesday that the team and coaches look at that factor with the veteran players in considering their production expectations. “I haven’t noticed a huge decline, like, ‘Wow, he can’t run that route any more, we’ve got to get him out of there.’” Philbin said. “I think hopefully he can still make a great contribution to the ballclub.”

Asked by Wilde how a coach decides whether a player’s skills are declining, Philbin said, “One way [is], you’re always looking for guys that can separate against man coverage and beat you. Football, at some point in time, especially on third down, comes to a one-on-one matchup. … I would say that might be one of the areas you’d look at.”

Driver is signed through 2012 and is motivated … just look at where he’s come since late last season … He suffered a serious high ankle injury in the Super Bowl, but didn’t show that in the Packers’ first preseason game when he separated from defenders to catch a 30-yard strike from Aaron Rodgers in the the team’s second drive – a series of plays that resulted in a touchdown.

“That’s been my motivation throughout my whole life – to prove people wrong, [to prove] that I can do it,” Driver said. “I said I want to play until I’m 40. Whether that day comes or not, I’m not … I’m willing to know when it’s over, it’s over. For me, it’s not over. It’s been a proven fact that I’m still playing at a high level. I’m still competing at a high level. But people are going to continue saying, ‘At 36, he’s going to hit the wall.’”

And while the “business” side of football many times rules the day when players make decisions to either move on or retire, this Packers fan wants Driver to be smart about his final decision. He says he will respect the Packers if they decide to “go in another direction,” but deep in his heart he wants to retire a Packer.

Are those contradicting terms? Probably. But how it all ends will come down to face-to-face meetings between Driver, Packers administrators and coaches. He’s too valuable a face to the organization to allow bad blood to come between them. And Driver’s too classy of a man and player to allow that to happen.
In the meantime, our hope is that Driver continues his solid production for a team that continues its path toward another Super Bowl … and then let the chips fall where they may. In my mind, if the Packers allow Driver to continue to fulfill the remainder of his contract while also continuing to build the club for the future (if that’s possible), that would be the best case scenario.

“I think the Packers will give me an opportunity to retire here,” Driver said. “I don’t think they would want me to leave and go anywhere else.”

Driver is one of the best the Packers have seen … he deserves that kind of respect.

Topics: Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers, Mike McCarthy, NFC, NFL, Ted Thompson, Winning Isn't Everything, It's The Only Thing

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