GREEN BAY – Jermichael Finley and Aaron Rodgers can agree on this much: Finley has the ability to become the best tight end in the NFL – and among the all-time greats in the history of the league.
Whether the Green Bay Packers fourth-year tight end needs to “tighten it up a little bit with some of the mental mistakes” – in the words of his quarterback – to do so is a matter of opinion. And to hear Finley tell it, he is among the people who believe he does need to do that.
“I say the sky’s the limit. I think I can blow it out of the water. If my study level reaches my athleticism, I think it’ll be ridiculous,” Finley said at his locker Thursday, four days after catching three touchdown passes from Rodgers in a 27-17 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. “Not being conceited or anything like that. It’s just real life.
“I’d like to be elite and be up there with the greats.”
Rodgers believes that will happen if Finley dedicates himself to more intense study of the playbook, and Rodgers said exactly that both on his weekly radio show on ESPNMilwaukee and ESPNMadison on Tuesday, and at his locker in front of the usual throng of media on Wednesday.
“I think I hold everybody to the same standard. I hold myself to a high standard. I think the mental mistakes are the ones that I believe can be cured through preparation,” Rodgers told reporters Wednesday. “And as gifted and talented as that boy is – and he's an incredibly talented man, the big fella – I think he needs to tighten it up a little bit with some of the mental mistakes. That being said, a mental mistake by him can easily turn into a touchdown, which it did during the game. So you have to kind of understand, you're dealing with an extremely gifted player.
“We're talking about one or two plays. But I think he can be great, and I wouldn't be saying that if I didn't believe he could be one of the greatest tight ends to ever line it up.”
Those one or two plays Rodgers was referring to were Finley’s second touchdown catch, a play that Finley thought was a running play when he broke the huddle and realized was a pass play just in time to catch Rodgers’ throw, and Rodgers’ first interception of the season, on which Finley was the intended receiver.
Rodgers said on Thursday that he spoke with Finley at lunchtime about his public comments, and Rodgers said he believed Finley took the remarks in the constructive spirit he intended them. Nevertheless, there was reason to wonder whether Rodgers, who seldom speaks without having thought every word through beforehand, should have kept his criticism between him and Finley.
“Sounds to me like (Rodgers) wants more (from Finley),” tight ends coach Ben McAdoo said Thursday. “And that’s a positive.”
Asked Thursday if he was bothered by Rodgers’ public comments, Finley replied: “It’s OK with me. He’s the big dog, and he knows best. If it comes out of his mouth, there must be something right about it. What I’ve got to do is, if he doesn’t think I study, I’ve got to study a little more. And that’s what I will do.”
According to McAdoo, Finley’s study habits and understanding of the nuances of the game have improved gradually since 2008, when as a 21-year-old rookie he caught only six passes for 74 yards in 14 games. A strong finish that season set the stage for a breakout 2009, when Finley tied the team record for receptions in a season by a tight end (55, for 676 yards and five touchdowns) and set a franchise record for receiving yards in a playoff game (159, on six receptions, in an NFC Wild Card loss at Arizona). Finley was well on his way to the best season by a tight end in Packers history after four games last year (21 receptions, 301 yards, one TD) before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5.
“Jermichael’s a guy that has been around for a while, (but) he’s still young, and he hasn’t played a lot,” McAdoo said of Finley, who has played in only 36 of 56 possible games (including playoffs) in his career. “As he continues to play, the way he plays the game will sharpen. He just needs to play.
“His first year, he was young coming out and was learning. Made some positive contributions at the end of his rookie year. Second year, he came out, started playing, then got a little nicked up but came back and came on strong at the end of the year in the playoff game. The table was set for last year and did everything to put himself in position to have a breakout, tremendous year and had the unfortunate injury.”
Finley admitted that his first year, he struggled with the playbook, which coaches boiled down into simple concepts to allow him to play as many snaps as he did.
“Coming in my rookie year, I was discombobulated. I didn’t know one thing,” said Finley, who enters Sunday’s game against Denver with 15 catches for 206 yards. “But every year, it’s starting to get better. I’m starting to get more savvy with my studying. I’m starting to take down notes and ask questions – something that I didn’t used to do. I feel like I’m getting smarter all over.”
While there have been players in the past who needed to be taught the offense through alternative means because they learned differently, McAdoo said Finley doesn’t need such special considerations – “There aren’t any Hooked On Phonics or anything like that,” McAdoo said, “because the guy is a bright guy” – and said he doesn’t feel the need to check up on Finley away from Lambeau Field to make sure he’s doing the requisite studying on his own.
Finley, though, admitted that sometimes he needs prodding to study outside of team meetings and film sessions. His wife Courtney usually fills the role of drill sergeant, but she’s taking classes at the University of Texas this semester and shuttling between Green Bay and Austin every week. Finley said that Courtney often would order him to the basement of the family’s De Pere home to watch extra film, and he is doing so now because he knows she’d be ticked off at him if she learned he was slacking.
“I think we all know who runs this ship,” Courtney joked. “But yes, I do encourage him to study his playbook, and oftentimes he is on top of it without me threatening him. He studies and watches film, so when mental errors do occur, I think it has more to do with confidence than preparation. He second-guesses what he knows to do. But I think it is one aspect of his game that can easily be improved upon. He is dedicated to perfecting his game like never before. So I'm happy with his progress as a student of football, if we can call him that.”
Both McAdoo and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said one of Finley’s best qualities is his ability to play fast. And if he’s thinking too much, he can’t be himself.
“We’re certainly glad he’s back, glad he’s playing for us, like the things he’s done. I think he’s working his way back,” Philbin said. “When you hear something in the huddle and you’ve really got to use your brain and think about where you line up first, that’s going to slow you down. He’s getting to a point where, ‘I know that, I know that. Now, I can focus on: What coverage is it? How is the guy going to play me? Is he inside leverage (or) outside leverage? How’s that going to impact my release?’ I think he’s coming around in that area. He’s certainly not a finished product but he’s making strides.”
Added McAdoo: “He’s just a high-energy, wired guy who likes to play fast. You want to utilize him that way. That’s what makes him who he is. What I like to tell him is, you play fast and let me worry about the details. The details come through repetition. He’s going to run through the middle like a scalded dog. The details, the way that route looks from Week 1 to Week 7 are going to change. It’s going to tighten up, be more detailed. But the speed can’t change. You can’t play detailed and slower. It’s not good enough.”
And what will happen when he does combine those details with his ability?
“I think the level he was playing at at the beginning of last year was a very high level. I think he’s still working to get (back) to that level,” McAdoo said. “You remember the way he came on at the end of 2009, the way he was in the offseason out here in camp, and then the beginning of the season last year, it was setting up to be a pretty special year for him. He’s still working to get back there. He just needs to play. Hopefully as the season progresses he’ll get back there and eventually exceed that level.”
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.