GREEN BAY, Wis. — The day after a playoff loss to the New York Giants in January, Donald Driver seemed resigned to the idea that he may have put on his Green Bay Packers uniform for the last time.
A few months — and one big TV dance contest victory — later, Driver was back on the practice field for a workout Wednesday.
And even if he had to restructure his contract to make it happen, and now faces significant competition within what might be the NFL’s deepest group of receivers, the 37-year-old remains remarkably confident he still can be a productive receiver.
“Age is just a number,” Driver said. “You still play the game at a high level, and I haven’t declined. People talk about, well, I didn’t have 1,000 yards. I didn’t have 80 catches. I don’t control who throws the ball. I can’t control that. But every ball I caught, it was amazing. I made amazing catches, amazing runs. And hopefully when it is all said and done people will look at that.”
Driver wasn’t willing to discuss the details of his restructured deal, although it’s safe to assume he took a pay cut. Driver had a year left on his previous deal, which would have paid him $5 million.
“You know I’m not going to spill all that,” he said. “I’m a Packer, that’s all that matters.”
Another thing that wasn’t clear: Whether Driver had any assurances from the Packers that he’ll make the roster coming out of training camp.
Driver acknowledged the possibility, but said he doesn’t expect to get cut.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get into a bitter relationship,” Driver said. “I don’t think they want that, I don’t want that. So I don’t think it’ll ever happen. I think it’ll be two sides coming together like we did, and I’m going to retire as a Packer.”
Besides, Driver still considers himself one of the team’s top receivers.
“I’m still the starter until they tell me I’m not,” Driver said. “They haven’t told me I’m not the starter.”
But after six straight seasons of at least 70 catches and 1,000 yards receiving, Driver caught 51 passes for 565 yards in 2010 and 37 passes for 445 yards last season.
Driver writes off the decline in his productivity to the sheer number of talented targets the Packers have put around Aaron Rodgers, a group that includes Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb.
“Balls getting thrown to me? I can’t control that,” Driver said. “Back in the day, I used to be the guy. I had three guys on me, the ball was getting thrown to me anyway. It’s not like that anymore. You don’t have to be ‘the guy’ to win games, and I think we realized that last year. And at first, yeah, it was tough. … Once you get older, you’re like, ‘I don’t have to have 80 catches. I don’t have to have that. I don’t have to have 1,000 yards.’ As long as I’m productive, I’m still playing at a high level, I’ve proven that.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy limited Driver’s involvement in Wednesday’s practice, but made it clear that it wasn’t because he thought Driver got out of shape during his stint on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
“Physically he looks great,” McCarthy said. “It’s not a question if we think he’s in shape. We just want to be smart with him. We’re probably going to keep him in a limited role this week.”
Despite spending 10 hours or more per day practicing for the show, Driver said he did football-related workouts from 8 to 10:30 a.m. every day. Driver hired a trainer in the Los Angeles area, brought his regular trainer out from Dallas and worked out with a few college players in the area.
Driver said his body fat was just over 4 percent when he started the show; now, he says it’s about 2 percent.
And while he doesn’t think winning the show has changed him at all, he acknowledges that he had reached a new level of fame.
“People were in the airport like, ‘You’re that guy that just won “Dancing with the Stars,”" Driver said. “But I’m like, ‘I do play football.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, no one cares about you playing football.’ But everyone does care about “Dancing with the Stars.”
And while so much of this offseason has been dominated by discussion of safety issues in football and the problems players run into once their careers are over, Driver said he isn’t concerned.
“At the end of the day you hope that you can walk away from the game with a sound mind,” Driver said. “If you don’t then we lose friends. No one knows how we lose these guys whether it is brain damage or not to cause these things to happen. We lost some great men. Junior Seau, played against him for so many years. Great man, great father. That’s the situation. Why? No one knows. You don’t ever want to stop playing because you think about the injuries. If that’s the case they might as well stop football, period. And they’re not going to that.”