GREEN BAY – No lasting judgments were or should have been made from one brief locker-room interview session. But considering the source of the short, blasé answers being given, perhaps it was a sign of things to come.
Tight end Jermichael Finley stood before a thicket of microphones after one of the team’s organized team activity practices this spring, and the adjective that previously might have started this sentence – loquacious – was in no way applicable. He basically spent four minutes repeating one phrase.
“I feel good,” he said, half a dozen times.
If fewer words leads to greater production from the Green Bay Packers mercurial tight end, that will be wonderful news for Finley’s teammates and coaches. The organization decided in March that he was worth keeping around for the final year of his contract, paying him the $3 million roster bonus he was due and running his total compensation for this season to $8.25 million. The 26-year-old enters his sixth NFL season having flashed breathtaking talent, but his production hasn’t always matched his bravado.
That said, he did look like a player who was serious about realizing his vast potential during the second half of last season. At midseason, he’d dropped seven passes in the first eight games, his agent had questioned via social media quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ leadership abilities, and Finley, never one to censor himself, had continued his outspoken ways, to the chagrin of the organization.
But then, Finley flipped the switch. He wound up breaking the franchise single-season record for receptions by a tight end (61), and he didn’t drop a single pass over the final six games (including playoffs). Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said Finley’s drop percentage early in the season was “about 30 percent,” and during the second half of the season, it was down to 6 percent.
Not coincidentally, Finley’s relationship with Rodgers was improving during that time, as the pair began spending the night before each game talking about the game plan, how Finley should run his routes and life in general. The connection made a big difference, as Finley caught 26 passes in the final five regular-season games and also had a breakthrough day in Detroit on Nov. 18, when his three receptions included a touchdown and a critical 40-yard catch-and-run to set up the game-winning score.
Then, he showed up for the offseason program having put back on the weight he’d shed in advance of the 2011 season (an unapproved weight loss that had ticked his coaches off to no end), leading head coach Mike McCarthy to say the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Finley looked “excellent. … I really like the offseason that Jermichael has put together so far.”
When Finley was told of McCarthy’s comments, he simply reacted by saying they were “good to hear” before dismissing it as being “only minicamp.” As for his weight, Finley was dismissive of that, too.
“If I play my style of ball, everything else will fall in place and take care of itself at the end of it,” he said. “My weight is at (a number where it’s) me feeling good and moving fast and physical, feeling healthy. If I do what I'm supposed to do, everything else will take care of itself.”
One thing is clear: After an up-and-down 2011, Finley is clearly entering the year on a higher note this time around. Fontenot hopes his finish to last season was a harbinger of things to come.
“He seems like he’s really dialed in. as far as expectations go, I didn’t set any expectations last year, we just wanted to continue to improve each and every week, and that’s the same mentality we’re taking this year – let’s get better, let’s find a starting point and let’s get better each and every week. We’re capable of doing great things,” Fontenot said. “I think we definitely had a year to grow off of last year and the way we finished off the year, I’m happy with where we’re starting. But again, we have a long ways to go.”
The primary reason Finley figures to be considerably more vital to the offense is the free-agent departure of wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed half of last season with a lower abdominal muscle tear. Even though Jennings wound up missing so much time, the Packers still went into last season expecting him to be a major contributor. This year, the Packers figure to run plenty of offensive sets with three wide receivers, Finley and a running back on the field, which should lead to more opportunities. (His 61 receptions came on 88 targets.) While McCarthy has vowed to not make the same mistake he did in 2010 – when he built the offense around Finley, only to see him suffer a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 – the coach has always seen Finley as a matchup problem for defenses.
And yet, once again, Finley downplayed the idea of getting more chances with Jennings in Minnesota.
“Of course, losing a big player like that, there's many opportunities for multiple players on the team. For (fellow tight end Andrew) Quarless, me and the receivers we've got. So we're going to have to step it up and make some plays.
“If I do what I'm supposed to do, everything else will take care of itself.”
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