GREEN BAY – Greg Jennings likes Aaron Rodgers a lot, but he doesn’t envy his quarterback and friend one bit.
For while the Green Bay Packers may just have the greatest collection of skill-position players in the NFL, Rodgers is the one who’ll have to figure out how to keep them all happy – while reintegrating game-changing tight end Jermichael Finley into the offensive mix.
“Let me say this: Aaron has a tough job. A very, very tough job,” Jennings said as the defending Super Bowl champions prepared to kick off the 2011 season Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints. “You look out there and you see all these options. And it’s like, ‘Yes, I have so many options!’ But then, on the other end of that, you look out there and see all these eyes and hands wanting the ball, and now it’s like, ‘Uh, I’ve got to make sure I get everybody into the game, give everybody some opportunities.’”
Coaches like to refer to situations like this as a good problem to have, but the Packers coaching staff won’t go there because it means admitting that there is in fact a problem. When asked earlier this week if he’s ever coached an offense with as many weapons as this one, Packers coach Mike McCarthy paused, then artfully dodged the question, saying that this team does have the most offensive weapons at its disposal but shifting the conversation to the makeup of his team as a whole.
But Rodgers acknowledged Tuesday that making the most of Finley’s return to health isn’t as simple as plugging him into the offense and chugging right along. Finley, who caught 61 passes for 835 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games (including his 159-yard playoff effort) during his breakout season in 2009, was on pace for 84 receptions for 1,204 yards and four touchdowns when he suffered his season-ending knee injury on the first offensive series at Washington on Oct. 10.
“That’s a tough thing to do, it really is,” Rodgers said in his weekly on-air appearance on ESPNMilwaukee.com and ESPNMadison.com. “You look at our run last year, and he was out after Week 5 and we didn’t really hit our stride until after that. When you have a talent like that, it’s important to find ways to get him the ball. It’s always important when you get a guy like that involved early, to make him feel like he’s part of the plans from the get-go. You have to realize he’s a threat and teams are going to try to take him away. It’ll be interesting to see how teams play him, starting this week with New Orleans.”
The Packers’ offensive dynamic certainly changed after Finley went down. Through five games, Jennings had caught just 14 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns – putting him on pace for 44.8 receptions for 585.6 yards and 9.6 touchdowns. But with Finley sidelined for the final 11 regular-season games, Jennings caught 62 passes for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns to finish with 76 catches for 1,265 yards and 12 TDs. He then added 21 catches for 303 yards and a pair of Super Bowl XLV touchdowns in the four-game playoff run.
According to Rodgers, the offense didn’t intentionally shift toward Jennings; any one of the other top receivers – Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones – could have become the go-to guy, a statement borne out by the fact that each of those three had games where he was the team’s leading receiver. But it was Jennings who consistently got open in the Packers’ progression-based passing game.
“I think the key to remember – and I hope these guys do remember because it’s going to be difficult to juggle all the weapons we have and keep ‘em all happy – is that anybody who touches the ball has some sort of ego and on some level wants to get theirs,” Rodgers said. “(So) it’s going to be an interesting task to try and keep all those guys happy. But they know how I play. I’m going to throw it to the guy who’s open. Whoever’s able to get open the most and have one-on-one coverages and win those battles is the guy who’s going to get the ball. And when Jermichael went down last year, that guy was Greg.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to put it in to triple coverage often or force balls into different areas. I’m just going to keep on playing the way I’m playing and hopefully with the kind of weapons we put on the field, there’s going to be a mismatch somewhere.”
That mismatch will often be Finley, whose size-speed ratio makes him a difficult cover for just about any defender. On Finley’s 18-yard touchdown catch against Indianapolis on Aug. 26, Colts linebacker Pat Angerer had near-perfect coverage but still wound up shaking his head in disbelief beneath the goalpost after Finley reeled in the pass.
“What Jermichael brings to the table obviously is second to none. Because of his size, his assets, what he can do, his skill set,” Jennings said. “There’s not a lot of defenders who can match up with a guy like that. (He’s a) tight end bigger than anybody they’re going to put on him, and if you put a linebacker on him, he’s – no disrespect to any linebacker out there – but he’s probably more athletic and more talented than any linebacker that you could ever put on him. So he’s going to create that mismatch opportunity.
“I think as a quarterback, you see that and you start to zoom in and you make that a focal point and you kind of lose sight of everything and everybody else. But I think there comes a time when you’re going to have to balance that out, and I think Aaron’s going to do a good job of that. I think having Jermichael and myself and James and Jordy and Drive and Cobb and all these other tight ends, and then the running backs … there’s more pieces to the puzzle than just myself and Jermichael.”
And if Finley is being targeted more often than the receivers, Jennings admitted that there could be some jealousy that creeps in.
“It’s about making sure that we can kind of keep everyone happy. But again, we have to keep the team first,” Jennings said. “Everyone’s not going to be happy every week. We totally understand that. And in order for us to get back to where we want to be, guys are going to have to step up, not just one. When Jermichael went down, we all stepped up as a group and were able to still win a championship. It’s not just one player that makes the team; it’s the team that makes the team.”
The normally brash Finley was somewhat subdued when he spoke in the locker room after practice on Monday, and he said all the things his coach and teammates would want to hear about putting the team first and being focused on winning a championship, not on personal numbers. But for a young player in a contract year who has publicly admitted in the past that he wants to be the NFL’s highest-paid tight end, Finley wasn’t overly convincing.
“It's just one of those things where you've just got to go out and play ball and get that chemistry back. And the only way to get that chemistry back is by playing games,” Finley said. “You've just got to stay as a team and just play ball. And like I said, the chemistry will come. ‘A-Rod’ might throw Greg 10 balls a game, and me and Driver might have two or three. As long as that 'W' comes with it, just be happy.
“We're on the road to a championship, man. And being selfish right now is not the goal. We've just got to embrace everything that comes to us. And take advantage of every ball this season."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.