Loss of Jordy Nelson brings back memories of 1996 for Packers

Losing Jordy Nelson for the season was a huge blow to the Packers, but the Packers survived a similar blow in their 1996 championship season with the loss of Robert Brooks. AP Photo/Mike Roemer

GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the 2015 remake of the 1996 film about the Green Bay Packers and their offense that lost a star receiver, Jordy Nelson plays the part of Robert Brooks. Davante Adams co-stars in the role of Antonio Freeman, and James Jones is Andre Rison.

We won't know for another five months whether it follows the same script to the end.

The original had a classic Hollywood ending; there's no spoiler alert needed here. Everyone knows the Packers didn't let Brooks' season-ending knee injury ruin them. They went on to win Super Bowl XXXI.

In this version, the Packers will have to proceed without Nelson, who was lost for the season when he ruptured the ACL in his right knee during a preseason game last month. This year, the Packers have more time to adapt; in 1996, Brooks' injury occurred in Week 7.

Brooks was coming off a career-best season in 1995, when he caught 102 passes for 1,497 yards and 13 touchdowns. Nelson's best season came last year, when he caught 98 passes and broke Brooks' single-season franchise receiving yardage record with 1,519.

Perhaps general manager Ted Thompson had '96 in his mind when he re-signed the veteran Jones on Sunday. Thompson was a Packers scout back then when GM Ron Wolf plucked Rison off the street and threw him in with Freeman and quarterback Brett Favre. Then in his eighth season, Rison had been cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars after 10 games.

Sherm Lewis, the Packers' offensive coordinator at the time, believes the midseason addition of Rison saved the '96 season.

"Rison was a veteran receiver, had a lot of success in the league and had been with a lot of teams," Lewis recalled in an interview this week. "He had some problems. He would be good, and then teams would get rid of him for whatever reason. But he was a player. And what he brought us was a certain attitude. He was a cocky guy. He was very confident.

"We had a bunch of young receivers -- Antonio was only in his second year -- and he was just cocky enough that it rubbed off on our younger guys, and he made them feel pretty good about themselves. He raised the level of play of all of our receivers just because he was so cocky and so confident in his ability. I think it was the key to our success, I really do."

Rison only caught 13 passes for 135 yards and one touchdown in five regular season games with the Packers but had another seven catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, which included that famous 54-yard touchdown on a Favre audible on the second play from scrimmage in the Super Bowl.

Enter Jones, who spent his first seven seasons with the Packers before leaving in free agency in March 2014. He lasted only a year with the Raiders and a training camp with the Giants before he was back on the street. Thompson signed him one day after the Giants cut him.

"They brought in a guy who knows the offense," said Lewis, who still follows the Packers closely in retirement. "I mean he's not Jordy, but at least he knows the offense, and it's just time for some of those young guys to step up."

That's what Freeman did in '96. He caught just eight passes a year earlier as a rookie. With Brooks out, Freeman became the leading receiver in just his second season. He caught 56 passes for 933 yards and nine touchdowns, and he missed four games because of a broken arm. In the Super Bowl, Freeman caught Favre's other touchdown pass, an 81-yarder.

"I was just a second-year kid," Freeman said in a recent interview. "I was Brett Favre's guy, and we're in the Super Bowl. That's a lot for a second-year guy to handle, and my quarterback thinks, 'Oh yeah, he can do this, this is nothing.'"

The second-year receiver this time around is Adams, who was far more productive as a rookie (with 38 passes as the No. 3 receiver) than Freeman. Now, Adams expected to start next to Randall Cobb.

"Really, it was just a combined effort by everyone," said Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett, who was the leading rusher on the '96 team. "You don't replace one guy. It's a collective group effort, so it was really more of that."

Just as it was in '96 with Favre, it will be up to Aaron Rodgers to adjust without his leading receiver. Favre won his second of three straight MVPs that year. Rodgers is coming off his second MVP in four seasons.

"You've got [a quarterback] that can do that," Lewis said. "That's not going to be a problem. He'll find a way to win. He'll spread the ball around. Yeah, you've got to have a quarterback, no question. We had that then, and they've got that now."