In 2011, Jordy Nelson leapfrogged Jennings as Aaron Rodgers’ top receiver. Last season, with Jennings missing eight games because of a nagging core muscle injury, he watched as James Jones and Randall Cobb broke through, combining for 1,738 yards and 22 scores.
Jennings celebrated those successes but wasn’t ready to slide quietly into a greatly diminished role.
He felt compelled to prove his career success hasn’t solely been a byproduct of having played with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Rodgers and Brett Favre.
Jennings isn’t sure enough outsiders remember that during Rodgers’ first year as a starter in 2008, he was the quarterback’s top target, catching 80 passes for 1,292 yards with nine TDs. Or that he continued to aid Rodgers’ ascension with more than 2,300 receiving yards and 16 scores over the following two seasons.
“I was kind of that comfort blanket so to speak,” Jennings said. “But this is a quarterback-driven league, so people forget about the guys around the quarterback.”
Jennings wanted his abilities appreciated. So in his final months with the Packers, he started thinking more about what was next.
“Maybe,” he said, “I need to go back to my college days where the quarterback wasn’t just viewed as oh-so-great and still prove that I can be successful.”
If Jennings hadn’t tired of Rodgers specifically, he certainly had his fill of the environment in Green Bay, wondering if the ubiquitous Rodgers lovefest had created a narrative that de-emphasized the strength of the group.
Throughout this offseason, Jennings has subtly jabbed Rodgers, rarely calling him by name and referring to him instead as “12” or “the guy they have now.”
“A lot of times when you have a guy who creates that spotlight for himself and establishes that and takes a lot of that, it becomes so-and-so and the team,” he said. “It should always be the team.”
Asked in a later conversation to clarify those sentiments, Jennings expanded.
“For me, I’m such a team person, I’m going to defer to my teammates,” he said. “I’m going to defer to the team, to the team, to the team. And I think when you reach a point where you’re not deferring any longer, it’s no longer really about the team.”
Jennings paused and looked around.
“Don’t get me wrong, ‘12’ is a great person. But when you hear all positives, all positives, all positives all the time, it’s hard for you to sit down when one of your teammates says ‘Man, come on, you’ve got to hold yourself accountable for this.’ It’s hard for someone to see that now because all they’ve heard is I’m doing it the right way, I’m perfect. In actuality, we all have flaws.”
Separated now from Rodgers and the Packers, Jennings knows a major catalyst for his success is out of the equation.
Yet Jennings also holds an opportunity — the edict really — to elevate Ponder, his new quarterback.
“I’m not saying that if I had wrote a script, this would hands down be the ideal position for me to be in,” Jennings said. “I don’t know. Only God knows that. But for me, it’s a challenge. It’s a change of gear to where now I don’t have that [established] quarterback. That’s what everybody is saying. But in my mind, I don’t need that quarterback for us to be successful.