GREEN BAY – To hear Greg Jennings tell it, it all began at the Wisconsin Sports Awards in April.
That’s when, after Jennings had left the Green Bay Packers as a free agent and signed with the rival Minnesota Vikings, his former quarterback was asked an on-stage question about the Packers’ remaining wide receivers following Jennings’ departure.
“Who?” Rodgers joked.
When the crowd at the Harley Davidson Museum responded with a collective “Ooooh,” Rodgers added that there “must be some Vikings fans here.”
Jennings, apparently, either read about the exchange in Lori Nickel’s wrap-up of the event in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or someone told him about it. Either way, during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters Wednesday in advance of his first game against his former team Sunday night at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome, Jennings pointed to Rodgers’ flip remark and then said that all his comments that followed were simply him joking around, just as Rodgers was.
“It was really messing around with the guys,” Jennings told a group of roughly 20 reporters gathered around a speaker phone at Lambeau Field. “I have the utmost respect for that organization and the guys within that organization. He came out, Aaron said, ‘Greg who?’ [at the Wisconsin Sports Awards], so I was just messing with him with that.”
That was Jennings’ first answer during his conference call – he ended up repeating it after sound-quality issues forced him to call back – but it wasn’t the first time he’s used that explanation. It certainly sounded as if Jennings was simply trying to move on from the topic, and it was clear that he wasn’t the only one.
Later in the conference call, Jennings said he called some of his ex-teammates to tell them he was joking. But asked specifically if he ever called Rodgers to tell him it was all a joke, Jennings replied, “No, we haven’t (talked).” At another point in the call, Jennings said, “If Aaron knows me like he’s known me over the past seven years, then he knows I’m not one of those guys that wishes ill will on anyone or tries to stand out and be apart from the team. Hopefully he knows that.
Rodgers, for his part, trotted out the same line he’d used throughout the offseason when asked about Jennings, about being focused on the guys in his locker room and not worrying about what outsiders might say.
But when a reporter skeptically wondered why Rodgers, who famously plays with a chip on his shoulder, wouldn’t have a chip on his shoulder about Jennings, Rodgers replied, “I didn’t say anything about forgetting. I just said focusing. It’s about what you should spend energy focusing on and thinking about and worrying about. Those are things that are important to this team. Those comments by anybody out there, just aren’t important to what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to do some great things here, our team is. That’s what we’re going to focus on and as a leader what I’m going to focus on.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, meanwhile, wanted the whole thing to go away. One week after making Keep Calm and Carry On his team’s rallying cry, the coach joked that this week’s theme is Silence is Golden.
“It’s really not a big deal,” said McCarthy, who acknowledged that Jennings was among the potential media topics he addressed with the players to begin the week. “I’m not really worried about it. Greg Jennings was a fun player to coach. Obviously we had a lot of success here. He’s moved on to his opportunity in Minnesota. I wish him, (his wife) Nicole and his family very well. It’ll be fun to compete against Greg.”
Wide receiver James Jones, who is the godfather to one of Jennings’ daughters and was Jennings’ teammate for six of Jennings’ seven seasons in Green Bay, said he talks to Jennings “once in a blue moon.” But it didn’t take much reading between the lines to know that Jones wasn’t buying the I-was-just-kidding defense.
“Oh, I’m not answering any of those questions about G. He made that decision and he has to live with it,” said Jones, who may miss his second straight game with a knee injury. “He did call me and say he was joking. But those comments are old school, man. We’re trying to win a ballgame. Greg said what he said, and now we’ve got to play.
“We’ve got to play. You can’t really control what anybody else says, but that’s on G. Hey, I’m just here to play some football, get my knee healthy and be out there to hopefully make some plays.”
Asked if he believed Jennings when he said he was joking, Jones replied, “Oh, man, I don’t know what to believe. The media is going to twist up whatever you want to twist up. G understands that you’ve got to watch what you say to the media. There’s truth in a lot of that, and there’s not truth in a lot of that. It is what it is.”
Nonetheless, just to recap, Jennings’ offseason comments began when he called Rodgers “the guy they have now” in an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in early June, then went on SiriusXM NFL Radio and made similar comments shortly thereafter. Jennings then appeared on ESPN’s First Take and again took his former quarterback to task (“You get respect when you give respect”) and said that one of the reasons he left Green Bay was to give other receivers a chance to spread their wings.
In a Minneapolis Star Tribune interview in July, Jennings compared the Packers’ environment to that of the Vikings and called the Packers’ approach “cookie-cutter” and said players “walk on egg shells” in Green Bay. In the full interview published in the newspaper the following Sunday, Jennings claimed Rodgers made it about him and not the team.
Jennings later issued an apology (“I don't really recall saying anything negative about Aaron or anyone over there, but hey, I apologize”) at training camp after Vikings coach Leslie Frazier gave him a talking-to. Jennings’ last noteworthy public comment came in a KFAN radio when he claimed the Packers “brainwashed” players into thinking their franchise was better than everyone else.
Asked Wednesday if, given so many instances, his self-described joke might have gone too far, Jennings replied, “I probably took it a little too far. I was happy there. Obviously there’s things that go on throughout life that you wish would be different. But it is what it is. You have to roll with the punches. Obviously, on my end of it, I feel like there were a lot of things that were kind of manipulated to appear a lot worse than what I was intending for them to be. That’s just, as a player, you have to watch what you say, so you learn and you grow.”
When it was pointed out to Jennings that Rodgers publicly lobbied for the team to re-sign Jones before the 2011 season and said after last season that bringing back veteran safety Charles Woodson, but never said anything publicly about bringing Jennings back, Jennings’ answer was unconvincing when asked if he was disappointed.
“No, it is what it is. It is what it is. No,” he said. “We went to bat for James, you know I went to bat for anyone in that locker room, but like I said it is what it is.”
Perhaps the reason Rodgers never publicly lobbied for Jennings was that, according to three different sources, the Packers offered Jennings a deal that averaged in the neighborhood of $11 million per year before the 2012 season and Jennings turned them down, aiming instead for a deal that would average at least $15 million annually. He ended up with a five-year, $47.5 million deal from the Vikings, while the final offer from the Packers, according to sources, was for $8 million a year.
Jennings enters Sunday night’s game having caught 24 passes for 327 yards and two touchdowns (including a 70-yarder). With Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman, he’s played with as many quarterbacks in the first six games of this season as he played with in all of his seven years in Green Bay (Brett Favre, Rodgers and two spot starts by backup Matt Flynn). On Wednesday, the Vikings announced that Freeman had suffered a concussion against the New York Giants on Monday night and that Ponder will start if Freeman can’t go.
“I’d imagine it would be difficult for any receiver,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said in his conference call. “You want to know who your quarterback is so you can get in a rhythm and get comfortable week in and week out. We have had some fluctuation there for sure, starting with the injury with Christian. But (Jennings) is a pro.”
Much like ex-Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who in 2009 played against his former team first in the Metrodome before having to return to Lambeau Field, the Vikings don’t play in Green Bay until Nov. 24. Jennings acknowledged that he expects “a lot of boos” when he comes back, but that he’s worried about this game, not the next meeting.
“I don’t play the game thinking of what the fans are going to think and what they’re going to say. There are going to be Greg Jennings fans, there are going to be Greg Jennings hate fans,” Jennings said. “It doesn’t matter if I said anything or did not saying anything, or if I put on some other uniform, Greg fans are going to be Greg fans, and there are loyal packers fans, you’ve got to respect them.”
After it was pointed out that Favre appears to be mending fences with the team and that ex-Packers and Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell signed a one-day retirement contract with the Packers, Jennings was asked if it matters to him how he’s perceived among Packers fans.
“When I left my wife and I put together a farewell deal, and that’s truly how I feel,” Jennings said, referring to a full-page ad he took out in local newspapers. “God has allowed me to move on and embrace a new season of my life. I can’t complain about that. I’m embracing that with open arms.
“Do I still have ties there? Absolutely. Do we still have connections there? Absolutely. I still have a love for those fans and for that organization, absolutely, and the guys in that locker room. But I’m developing new ties, new relationships here.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.