EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Greg Jennings can run straight, to his left, to his right, cut back or zigzag, but the direction that interests him the most is forward.
That preferred setting applies to his role as the veteran leader of an otherwise young group of Vikings receivers, the help he can provide for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and what Jennings has in his heart for helping communities.
Jennings conveys a high level of contemplation with his words. It's a combined introspection mixed with deeper thoughts he's extended toward understanding the world.
"I've always looked at the bigger picture versus just looking at myself as the picture," Jennings said. "I think that's important because if I'm willing to see myself in the picture but still see the bigger picture, I'm not so caught up in who I am and what I can do. I'm more focused on what we can do as a whole, as a community, as a society, as a culture, as a team. I've never been one that cares for the spotlight — don't get me wrong, it's great to have it, but it's great not to have it."
Wide receivers coach George Stewart said Jennings is the "consummate professional" who is "usually the first one in and last one out" of the building.
"His craft is important to him, and he does a great job of leading our young receivers as well as spending time with our young quarterback," Stewart said. "Anytime you have a veteran receiver that's an elder statesman, that has hardware, which he does in terms of a Super Bowl ring and (two) Pro Bowls, you tend to listen to him, and he has done a great job for our young people."
Jennings has played in 120 regular season games, nearly double the amount played by Minnesota's other four receivers — Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen and Charles Johnson — combined.
"We call him the encyclopedia because our young players go to him as a reference," Stewart said. "The thing about him is he's a pro and he details his work. We always talk about signing your work when you finish and he does a great job of signing his work because it's important to him, he takes great pride in it, and the guy is special."
An on-field example of Jennings' leadership is a recent sideline discussion he had with Bridgewater in Buffalo after the young QB had thrown his second interception in as many snaps, positioning the Bills to take a 7-3 lead. Bridgewater recovered on the next possession, connecting with Jennings for a 38-yard completion to convert a third-and-7 and again for a 15-yard gain on the following play to set up a short TD toss — the first of Bridgewater's career — to Patterson.
Bridgewater said the words from Jennings helped him "reboot" his mental computer and had extra value because of Jennings' experience.
Does that mean the nine-year NFL veteran has become a quarterback whisperer?
"No, I don't think I'm a quarterback whisperer at all," Jennings said. "I think that's just me trying to get his mind set on what the goal still is, instead of looking at what's happened because when you look at what has happened, you tend to fall into a complacent place. You're trying to stay there because it's going to be successful or you're trying to find yourself to get out of it because it's not successful, but if you're never comfortable, if you're never in a place of complacency, then you're always moving forward and you're never worried about what you just did.
"You're always trying to grow, no matter what it is you just did, you're trying to move past that," Jennings continued. "At that moment, I was just trying to encourage him that what we've done up until this point, you can't erase it, but what we do have control over is what we can do going forward. My last words to him were, 'We trust you, so let's get it done. We trust you, and trust is everything on a team.' "
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said the 38-yard pass from Bridgewater to Jennings in the Buffalo game illustrated a development in trust between the young QB and receiver and an increased understanding for the QB on how to attack a professional defense.
"The throw he made to Greg Jennings, the fact that he threw it, Greg was covered, he threw it inside where only Greg could get it," Turner said. "A lot of young guys would never even try to throw that ball. I don't think he would have tried to throw that ball three weeks (before that game). You see a guy making progress and understanding what you have to do in this league."
Bridgewater connected with Jennings three times, including for a 17-yard touchdown, in a win at Tampa Bay the following week, and the pair combined for six completions for 76 yards to help defeat Washington Sunday and enter this week's bye with positive energy.
The receiver and his wife, Nicole, established The Greg Jennings Foundation in 2008 with the overarching goal of meeting educational needs of young people. It assists other non-profit organizations and issues grants to help those organizations reach their goals. The foundation has helped young people in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Jennings' home state of Michigan move toward their dreams.
"That's been one of the brightest spots of my career because this arena gives me a platform, gives my foundation a platform and a voice to where people want to know what we're doing to impact communities," Jennings said. "I know there's several foundations out there, several entities and organizations that are doing great things. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel or set us so far apart from the next one. We're just trying to bridge the gap, and our focus is toward youth and education.
"What we found is there are so many programs out there that either don't have the numbers they need to stay afloat or they don't have the finances they need to stay afloat, but they're great programs," Jennings continued. "We're trying not only to educate the youth and give them something no one can take from them, because there are so many things you can give someone that can be taken away, but education is something that lasts your lifetime."
Stewart said Jennings' deep and comprehensive personality "says a lot about him as a person because he is multifaceted."
"He's not just a football player. You can talk to Greg about politics, religion, a myriad of things and he has a reply to it," Stewart said. "He's a worldly young man, and I'm very fortunate to have an opportunity to work with Greg Jennings."
Jennings was All-Conference in football, basketball and track when he attended Kalamazoo Central. Although it was the same high school as Derek Jeter, Jennings has "never even thrown a baseball." That doesn't mean he doesn't have an appreciation for Jeter's accomplishments in 20 seasons with the New York Yankees. Jennings, however, has a deeper appreciation for what Jeter does through his foundation than what he did on the field to be selected to 14 MLB All-Star Games.
"So the interesting thing about Jeter and I, that most people don't really know is he is almost 10 years older than I am, so there's a huge gap, and I mess with him about that all the time," Jennings said. "I've always admired what he's done because it's never been about him from day one, from everything he's done with his foundation and the way he carried himself throughout his career.
"Obviously he's put the numbers up that will make him a Hall of Fame player, but even it weren't for that, a lot of people that have the pleasure of meeting him don't talk about baseball," Jennings said. "They talk about who he is as a person, as a human being, because he genuinely cares. He has an authentic heart to help others, and that's one of the number one things I've always expressed, how much I appreciate the model that he's placed in front of myself and others that, 'This is how we do it the right way.' "
Jennings, who joined members of his hometown for a video tribute for Jeter's retirement, has put up numbers of his own. He is tied with Jordy Nelson as the active leaders in the NFL with four touchdown catches of 80 or more yards, and Jennings' seven TD catches of at least 70 yards is tied for fourth-most since the 1970 merger between the NFL and AFL.
Jennings said those plays come down to "trust, and being willing to go after a defense."
"It's all about wanting to make a play and when the ball is in the air, making a play on the ball and doing your job at a high level," Jennings said. "For me, all those numbers are a testament to plays being well executed and us finishing as a unit."
When asked what recording the 500th reception of his career (in Week 2 against New England) meant to him, Jennings said, "it means I've been playing for a little bit."
"I've never been one to get caught up in statistics simply because it's not what makes a player great," Jennings said. "It's kind of a gauge of what someone has accomplished, but not every great player has put up great numbers or not every great player has a Super Bowl ring, so you can't always gauge someone's success based on their statistics. Now, in the game we play, that's typically what happens but I try not to let statistics dictate who I am and how I perform because every game is not going to be a great game.
"For the next, however many years I play, I don't know how many receptions I'll have," he continued. "It's a great accomplishment, but it wasn't a goal of mine. It's not something, at this moment where I am, I can look back and say I'm extremely proud of it. Maybe when I'm done playing I can look back and say that, but I'm not a stat guy so I don't get caught up in the numbers."
Injuries have led to Minnesota playing three starting quarterbacks for the second consecutive season, and the offense has tried to establish consistency in the new system installed by Turner. Jennings said his goal for the Vikings is to "stick to what works, and what works is work."
"If you're willing to work, if you're willing to put in time, you're going to be successful," Jennings said. "The results will come. Every result, no one has ever worked and gotten the result that they've always wanted, but the one who continues to work, continues to do the things, continues to remain diligent in what they believe to be true, they see results. Things turn for the better, and those are the people that we see that are most successful because they stick to it, they find solutions and continue to work."