What You Don’t Know About: Being a Wide Receiver

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Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Sometimes, it can be tough to explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLV champion Greg Jennings to explain his job without using any clichés.

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“Hey man, you know Brett breaks his receivers’ fingers, right?”

When I came to the Packers as a rookie in 2006, Brett Favre was my quarterback. His reputation as a gunslinger was all I heard about going into that first training camp.

Everybody was asking me if I had strong hands.

“Brett? He zips it in there, man. You better be ready.”

I was doing everything that summer — squeezing hand grippers, walking around with silly putty in my hands all day, whatever I could think of to get ready to catch Brett’s bullets in the freezing cold at Lambeau.

True story: A few days before I was drafted, I was getting calls from a bunch of teams. I had the Nextel flip phone. It lit up with a 920 area code. That’s a Green Bay number. I remember thinking right before I picked up, Ahhh man. I’ve lived in Michigan all my life. Please let me go somewhere warm. It was a few coaches from the Packers, and we had a good conversation.

The next day, I went out to breakfast with my best friend, Jerome Harrison, who was also in the draft. We were talking like, “O.K., of all the teams you talked to, where would you not want to go?”

I said Green Bay.

Get me outta this cold, man. Let me get some sunshine.

So naturally, on Draft Day, my Nextel lit up with the 920 area code. My heart literally sank. When I got on the phone and the GM said, “We’re about to draft you, Greg. Are you excited to be a Green Bay Packer?”

I said, “Absolutely!

Honestly, it was an amazing moment. But I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was in for at the time. I was wearing XXL white Ts and size 38 jeans. My entire wardrobe was huge. It was embarrassing.

So when I got to training camp, I was pretty naive about everything. It got pretty real when I walked in the first day and saw number 4 standing at his locker.

In college, quite honestly, I had relied on my athletic ability to beat the opposing corners. I ran a lot of bubble screens, slants, posts. Basic routes. Jump balls. I would catch the ball in traffic no problem. My mentality was, If It’s In the Air, I’ll Go Get It.

It took me one play to realize If it’s in the air, I’ll go get it wasn’t going to translate to the NFL.

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I owe that lesson to Mr. Chris Crocker.

He blew me up. He absolutely, totally blew me up.

It happened in my second preseason game. We were playing the Falcons at Lambeau. I was on the line of scrimmage, getting set. My route was supposed to be a slant.

I take off, make my cut to the middle of the field and turn my head back toward the line of scrimmage. Favre zips it right into the little window. The ball hits me right in the gloves. I have it. I caught one of Brett’s bullets. I can do this, man!

Pop!

Before I even feel anything, I hear the sound.

Crocker’s playing safety for the Falcons, and he’s decided to introduce himself to me. He comes downhill and absolutely blows me up. The ball pops out. I’m on the ground in a heap.

I had never been hit that hard in my entire life. I remember coming to the sideline, and my own teammate, Donald Driver, was like, “I told you, young pup. I told you it was real out here.”

And I’m thinking, “Are you on my team right now?”

That was my “welcome to the NFL” moment.

So, what happened? Why did I get blown up?

My route-running was naive, to say the least. People watching on TV usually think it’s just as simple as taking five steps, cutting in a certain direction and catching the ball. Because that’s how it looks on Madden.

When people see a receiver get crushed over the middle, they usually think it’s because the quarterback hung him out to dry, but sometimes it has nothing to do with the throw. Sometimes it’s about a decision the receiver made before the snap.

Let me break it down. At the line of scrimmage, there’s so much stuff going on. I’m lining up and looking at the coverage. First, I’m looking at the safety and taking a mental inventory.

Is he cheating my way?

Then I’m checking to see how the corner is playing me at the line.

Is he pressed?

Is he bailed?

On any given play call, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. I’ll usually have a tree of options depending on the coverage. A 10-yard stop route might turn into a 7-yard stop. Before the ball is snapped, I need to process a bunch of different variables and already know how I’m going to attack the coverage.

This is the exact moment when you need to be on the same page with your QB.

It starts on the practice field and in the film room. That’s where the bond between receiver and QB is formed. You two have to be in sync, so the kinship is crucial.

On the field, especially on the road when the crowd noise can be deafening, that begins and ends with the eyes. When I was playing with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, our communication at the line of scrimmage was just subtle eye contact. If our eyes met, I knew to be alert for anything. That could be a quick hitch, a smoke route, or maybe just me breaking my route off a little quicker. My eye contact might be saying, You see the safety cheating up to the line, right? I better throttle down a little early before he blows me up.

Any little eye contact is telling you something. As a receiver, if you’re only locked in on the defender in front of you — and not looking back at your quarterback — you’re losing his trust.

He needs your eyes. It can be anything from a small nod to some kind of body language that you two have established in practice. It’s an unspoken harmony. We don’t have to talk about it because we’ve done it so much. We know what one another are thinking already.

Jennings Eye Pull

I gained so much trust from Brett. As a rookie, he made it a lot easier for me to excel. He came to me all the time and asked me straight up, “Greg, were you open?” Or, “What did you see?” That meant the world to me because Brett was letting me know: O.K., young fella, you do know what you’re talking about; you do have a good football IQ. He put the onus on me to tell him what I was seeing.

That’s a big deal. The NFL is no different than any other workplace. As a quarterback, you can have all these measurable assets — a big arm, speed, whatever — but if you don’t have the trust of your colleagues, an NFL defense is going to break you down.

Okay, you got all that so far?

Communication is solid with the QB. We have our route locked in. Now I just have to catch it. Guess what? In the NFL, that’s hard. It’s not pitch and catch.

As Donald said, it is indeed real out here.

You’re trying to catch a ball with whole lot of opposition and conflict. All the little intricacies and the fine details of making an actual catch are what separates a guy like Randy Moss from 99% of the receivers who have ever played this game.

The ball is snapped. You’re running. Not so much at full speed, but fast enough where you can still think on the fly.

Not looking at the sideline as a guide.

Not looking at the yard markers as a guide.

You can’t do those things in the NFL. Because you have to look at the rotation of the defense as you’re running in order to figure out how to put yourself in an optimal position to make a play on the ball.

When the ball is in the air and you turn your head to track it, you have to zone everything else out and focus solely on the rotation of the ball.

You’re going to get hit regardless.

It’s better to get hit and catch the ball. If you’re focused on the defender whatsoever, the chances of you making the catch drops drastically.

And you can bet that the corner is going to have his hands on you the whole way. He’s going to do whatever he can get away with. Look at this catch, for example:

When I turn my head to track the ball, I put my arm up to create a little separation, but the corner swats my hand just a little bit. It doesn’t look like much, but when you’re running at nearly full speed with your head turned, it can really mess with your balance. If I’m thinking about my balance, I’m not focused 100% on the ball. If I’m not focused 100% on the ball, I’m going to drop it.

Randy Moss took this to another level on deep balls. Obviously, Randy was fast. But he also did something that most receivers can’t do because it’s such a difficult skill. Randy would turn and spot the ball in the air midway through his route, then he would take his eyes off the ball to run to where it was going to be, then he would turn his eyes back to the ball at the very last second and raise his arms to catch it.

As a defender, if a guy is looking back at the ball and you see his facial expression change, that’s your signal to put your hand up. But Randy never gave them that opportunity. His facial expression never changed. He would turn his head and put his hands up at the very last moment, and it was all so smooth.

All this stuff is technical. But the thing about my job that’s a little bit harder to explain is the passion some guys have for winning. That’s what separates people in this profession — that little extra. Can you play hurt? Are you willing to take the punishment?

Early in my career, Brett came up to me in the locker room and said something that really meant a lot. He said, “Greg, I know you’re banged up. But 80% of you is better than 100% of most of the guys in this league. Anyone can play hurt, but not everyone can play great hurt.”

That was Brett’s mindset. That’s why he was able to play so many consecutive games. He learned to play at a high level despite the pain. He was special.

Aaron had the same mentality, and it makes sense, because he got to see Brett do it. I mean, he probably won’t admit to it, but he learned a lot from watching Brett. Obviously he has his own style, but a lot of what he does he pulled from Brett. You don’t watch a legend like Brett and not add some of his game to your own.

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For instance, Aaron started developing this no-look pass, and Brett did that all the time. He had that “I gotta dart it in there” mentality — trying to fit the ball in every hole. That was Brett. Aaron felt that whatever Brett did, he could top. It wasn’t so much that he was trying to be Brett, he was trying to top Brett. That’s everyone’s goal. You don’t want to be the guy, you want to be better.

That’s the thing about his profession that’s kind of unquantifiable. It’s the drive. When teams are calling up these kids on draft day, they know all about their 40 times and their college statistics, but they have no idea if these kids have the drive that Brett and Aaron have.

This game is so technical, but there’s that extra 1%. You almost have to be a little irrational — some might even say a little crazy — to succeed in this game for a long time. Crazy enough to put a whole jar of Icy Hot in a 320-pound defensive lineman’s pants before a game.

Now who on earth would do that?

A gunslinger.

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