|Donna McWilliam / Associated Press|
|The son of a preacher, Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings seems born to handle the big stage.|
Sometimes when he is home alone or when he needs a "let-out," Packers receiver Greg Jennings grabs one of his five bass guitars and twangs a song, maybe a gospel tune like "Praise Him In Advance." This son of a preacher at his charity golf tournament last summer was persuaded by Bears tackle Tommie Harris to leap on stage, pluck the guitar, tap the drums and croon a bit, too.
And Jennings gracefully moved from the strings to the sticks to the mic.
Jennings seems born to handle the big stage, whether it is an impromptu musical gig or catching a football in prime moments in front of thousands of maniacal fans and millions more watching on television. He is not intimidating in size (5-11, 198) for a receiver. Three others at his position (Santonio Holmes, Chad Jackson and Sinorice Moss) were selected well ahead of his slot (second round, 52nd overall) in the 2006 draft, when Jennings became the first-ever receiver drafted from Western Michigan.
Jennings has struck a tune, a resounding chord in only his third NFL season. He became a starter as a rookie. Last season he flashed on the national scene with that blinding, 82-yard touchdown grab in overtime in Green Bay's midseason, Monday night victory at Denver.
Last Sunday, he led all NFL receivers with 167 receiving yards in the Packers' victory at Detroit.
This receiver caught Brett Favre's 400th touchdown pass, Favre's 420th that tied Dan Marino's career mark and Favre's 421st that broke the record. Jennings also caught Aaron Rodgers' first career touchdown pass, an 11-yarder last season at Dallas.
Thus, Jennings, 24, is old school, new school.
A guy who married his wife, Nicole, who he has known since the fifth grade in Kalamazoo, Mich. A father of a 20-month-old daughter, Amya. An expecting father, with his new baby due in April.
A rooted player. A humble one. Yet, he's the marquee example of the NFL's new batch of resolute, explosive young receivers -- among them Denver's Brandon Marshall and Detroit's Calvin Johnson -- who are helping push the NFL passing game to astonishing levels.
"I am blessed, truly blessed by God with talent, and I am not going to take any credit for that," Jennings said. "I feel like I am one of the guys here who can make a difference in games and there are several other guys here in that category. I just try to be the best I can possibly be. I don't get into ranking me with other receivers in the NFL. I've never been into that and I won't start now. The most important thing to me is not being the best or even striving to be the best. It is giving 100 percent of me."
For Greg Jennings, that is proving more than ample.
He is averaging 25.3 yards per catch this season. Last season, he made six touchdown grabs of 40 or more yards. He has an enviable burst more than raw speed. It can be described in the way Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh used to talk about players who do not run blazing 40-yard sprint times: functional football speed. Walsh used to say: "I'll take the guy who has functional football speed in equipment more than the guy who runs fast in his shorts."
Most integral, Jennings often shows up when big plays are required. This player running free in a secondary with the ball in his hands is becoming a familiar site.
We can expect to see more when Dallas travels to Green Bay on Sunday night. The Cowboys enter having scored 41 points in defeating the Eagles. The Packers arrive having scored 48 in beating Detroit. The game will be played on Jennings' 25th birthday.
"I'd be lying if I said no," said Jennings about the special air and competition the Cowboys bring. "They do make a game different. All of the talk now is they are the team to beat. They are the popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. That gives you a little extra to shoot for, especially in our stadium. A little more excitement. Mix in our history with Dallas and it's even bigger.
"They have a mindset that they can score from anywhere. Their offense is set up for explosion. We have the same mindset."
Though Jennings has not talked to Favre since Green Bay's loss last season in the NFC Championship Game, he credits Favre for helping him develop that mindset. One of explosion. Of pressure applied by scoring points. He is appreciative for having a "a piece, a crumb" of Favre's Green Bay legacy. Appreciative of Favre "jump-starting" his career in the right direction.
Working with Favre was a dream job.
Now, working with Rodgers, Jennings has become part of the Packers' solution to life without Favre and to Rodgers' growth.
"Everyone here likes Aaron's personality off the field," Jennings said. "His off-the-field personality is identical to his on the field. He wants to build relationships with players outside of football. And it's not just the marquee guys; there are guys on our team that the general fan never heard of that Aaron is close with. You have to work to be a leader? I think either you are or you are not. It's genuine or it isn't. Everybody here on this team feels the good vibe from Aaron."
Jennings felt it from the start, improvising on the route and the catch last season in Rodgers' first career score. And then when Rodgers ran the ball vs. Minnesota on opening night for his first Lambeau Field score and initial Lambeau Leap, it was Jennings who secured the ball and saved it for Rodgers.
The Green Bay receivers last season led the league in yards after the catch with 2,294, which comprised 51.4 percent of the Packers' pass offense. The NFL average per team was 1,596 such yards. The current crew includes Donald Driver, James Jones, Ruvell Martin and Jordy Nelson. It is a close-knit, card-playing, unselfish group, Jennings says.
"We have to be one of the top groups in the league because not many teams have the depth we have," Jennings said. "Our so-called No. 5 receiver could be a No. 1 receiver on other teams. There is no letdown among us. We expect big plays from each other. Any one of us can play any position and run any route at any given time."
Jennings likes the style of Holmes and New Orleans' Marques Colston.
This is the closest Jennings gets to singing his praises:
"I feel strongly about my confidence as a receiver. I can do whatever you ask a wide receiver to do."
Yes he can, says Ike Reese, a nine-year NFL linebacker who now hosts Ike At Night, a talk-radio show in Philadelphia.
"Jennings is a player who did not come out of college with a lot of fanfare but is playing with great confidence in big-game situations," Reese said. "He is going to make a nice combo with Rodgers."
These are the other young NFL receivers who have grabbed Reese's attention:
Calvin Johnson: "It's hard not to like this big fella. That tall, that big, that fast -- you can't stop that. There is nothing you can do with that."
Roddy White: "I played with him in Atlanta when he was a rookie and he struggled with the learning curve. He has all the physical tools and you are starting to see them now. He loves to block. He was a 1,000-yard receiver on a terrible team last year. That says a lot."
Brandon Marshall: "He is ridiculous. You get suspended the first game, come back for the first time and catch 18 balls? He has the whole package. What I like, he is a disciplined route runner. Very fluid. Chad Johnson used to be the best route runner in the league before he became Ocho Cinco. Now it's Brandon Marshall."
Toss in rookies DeSean Jackson of the Eagles and Eddie Royal of the Broncos, and the NFL passing game's infusion of effective, bold receivers continues to grow. Their performances are game-changing and more frequently decisive.
I'll take Jennings at the top of that list.
He is a perfect match for Green Bay, a city and people who openly wear values and honor connecting with a non-diva receiver in a league full of them who credits his parents, Greg and Gwen, with giving him a reliable foundation.
"Growing up the son of a minister was an advantage on my part," Jennings said. "I was taught right and morals and values. Knowing right from wrong was high on the totem pole and you'd better do right more than wrong. I was held accountable. It has paid dividends for me more than I could ever have imagined."
This fresh face, this player with a winning, bright smile has become an important glue for the Packers. The class he exhibited in the way he handled the Favre-Rodgers saga was noticed by his peers and by other NFL personnel around the league. Packers coach Mike McCarthy credited Jennings earlier this week for the way he approaches his work and for the work he produces.
Jennings credits Driver as a mentor, a teammate who "is on my hip and in my ear." When Packers fans see Jennings in the Green Bay community, they are surprised to find that he is so "small" and tells him he looks so much bigger on TV.
It is the stage.
He rises on it. He produces a striking melody on it.
That is what giving your humble best at all times, says Jennings, can do.