GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy spent much of his post-season wrap-up press conference Wednesday afternoon hammering away at the poor fundamentals that caused his defense to miss too many tackles and his pass-catchers to drop too many passes.
But the Green Bay Packers coach spent almost as much time extoling the virtues of free agent-to-be Jermichael Finley and making it crystal clear that he wants the 24-year-old fourth-year tight end back next season.
“Jermichael and I talked about his year. He didn’t feel great about the way it went,” McCarthy said, sharing part of what he and Finley talked about during the player’s post-season exit interview. “He knows he has a lot of really good football in front of him. I think Jermichael is a very talented young man and I would emphasize young. He needs an offseason program – like a lot guys – and I think he’ll continue to grow and be an outstanding football player for us.”
That said, both McCarthy and tight ends coach Ben McAdoo acknowledged this week that Finley must pay more attention to detail and the finer points of his game to realize his full, vast potential. In other words, he has to be better at the fundamentals that McCarthy emphasized throughout his press conference.
Finley finished the regular season having caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns but also dropped 11 passes according to STATS, which ranked him fifth in the league in drops. Only Atlanta’s Roddy White (15), Miami’s Brandon Marshall (12), Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe (12) and Cleveland’s Greg Little (12) dropped more, and White (181 targets, 8.3 percent drop rate), Marshall (145 targets, 8.3 percent), Bowe (141 targets, 8.5 percent) and Little (121 targets, 9.9 percent) all had more passes thrown in their direction than Finley (93 targets, 11.8 percent).
Finley then dropped another pass on the opening drive of the Packers’ 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoffs on Sunday.
“Jermichael probably brings a lot of criticism on himself because of his personality, but the man I work with, he has a great work ethic. There’s no one more into the practice on a daily basis than Jermichael,” McCarthy said. “He wants to be a great player and thinks he’s going to be a great player. With his talent level, that’s half the battle. I look for him to continuing to develop and establishing himself definitely as one of the (great) tight ends, Pro Bowl tight ends, in this league.”
McAdoo believes Finley was on course for a huge 2010 season before a knee injury at Washington in Week 5 ended his season. Finley had caught 21 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown in the first four games, building on a breakout 2009 season (55 catches for 676 yards) that culminated in a record-setting performance in the team’s 2009 NFC Wild Card loss to Arizona (six receptions, 159 yards).
“Jermichael just has a great energy about him. He has a passion and energy about him. He wants to be great. He works to be great. It didn’t work out. He didn’t have the year that he wanted to have this year. I think that’s something that’s going to motivate him moving forward,” McAdoo said.
“This season to me reminded me a lot of 2009. He was making plays. He had some good numbers. But he (needed) to put more detail in his game. Then he went through the whole offseason program, training camp, as he approached the regular season last year, he was a beast. And he had detail in his game. And he was playing at a very high level. Now we just got through a season. The offseason’s coming up. Training camp’s coming up. He’s got the same chance to do it over again – get that confidence going and put that detail in his game. And made a lot of plays.
“The more detail you get in your game, the more chemistry you have with the QB and the more productive you can be.
A good example of that lack of detail came on a critical play with 13 minutes 4 seconds left in the game on Sunday. Trailing 20-13, the Packers had a chance to tie the game if they reached the end zone.
Facing third-and-5 from the Giants’ 39-yard line, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had Finley wide open on a short slant route, but Rodgers’ fastball was too far in front of Finley, who dove and got his right hand on the ball before it fell incomplete. The Packers went for it on fourth-and-5 on the next play, and Rodgers was sacked for a 6-yard loss. The Giants got the ball back and took a 23-13 lead on a Lawrence Tynes field goal after a 10-play drive that bled 5:06 off the clock.
Asked after the game what went wrong on the play, Rodgers replied: “I missed my spot maybe a little bit. But I’ll have to go back and look at the film and see what happened.”
On Tuesday, Rodgers still hadn’t broken down the film from the loss but explained the play on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison this way: “Just not executing. One of those things where, we like the play call. We had a combination Randall (Cobb) and Jermichael on one side, the other three guys running combination routes (on the other side). I kind of took my eyes to the left at first because I wanted to come back to the Jermichael/Cobb side, and when I came back we just weren’t able to connect. And then fourth down, (the Giants) had a defense that was really good for the play we had called and we got beat and nobody was open.”
It appeared as if Finley slowed down during his route, but Rodgers never mentioned that and Finley said after the game that he never slowed down.
“I was still running through the ball. It was one of those plays I couldn’t make. There was too much on it and it was out there a little,” Finley explained. “The fans think it was me, probably. It was just one of those things. If you’re looking on the outside, you probably think I dropped the ball.”
Actually, it turns out that Finley ran his route incorrectly – one of those details that McAdoo believes he can be better with.
According to McAdoo, Finley was supposed to run a 5-step slant route on the play. Instead, McAdoo said, Finley was “a little bit quick with it” and only ran it at three steps before his break.
“What happened is, he hit the hole and he got there a little bit quick. And that forced him to throttle down, as opposed to taking five (steps) and getting there in stride,” McAdoo explained. “And it kind of threw the timing between him and the quarterback off a little bit.
“One more step and it’s a completion and we’re looking at a different ballgame possibly.”
Asked Wednesday if that play was evidence of how much room Finley has to improve as a young player, McCarthy agreed, although he also absolved Finley by saying that other receivers run imprecise routes from time to time and the pass still gets completed. At the same time, McCarthy suggested that the route had more to do with the completion than the throw’s velocity or location.
“He’s not the first guy to run three steps instead of five. There’s a lot of guys who have done that around here and been productive,” McCarthy said. “That’s not what we’re promoting and I’m not dodging the question. You want him to run five (steps) so the quarterback can clearly look (the defense) off and establish the hole to throw the ball through – like Aaron was doing on that play.
“That comes with reps. Once again, he’s a tight end, but he also plays the ‘1’ receiver situation and the number ‘2’ slot sometimes and plays in the ‘1’ slot to the three-man side. Those are the type of things when playing in a multiple offense – and we treat all the perimeter players the same, cause it’s about matchups – they have to play all the positions. That just comes with reps."
Because 2011 marked the first time Finley has played in all 16 regular-season games, McCarthy believes that chemistry will come with more reps. Perhaps that’s why McCarthy spoke of Finley as if he’s going to be back with the team next year, despite his unrestricted free agent status. If the Packers can’t get a long-term deal done, they figure to use the $5.4 million tight end franchise tag on Finley to keep him.
“I think Jermichael Finley has a lot of growth in front of him. Just like any perimeter player, the opportunity to grow and establish a relationship with the man throwing the ball to you is important,” McCarthy said. “So there’s definitely room for growth there.
“Jermichael has had injuries. If you look at the history of players who have had a season-ending injury, that first year back is their toughest. There’s that subconscious (feeling) there of getting through and playing a whole season. I know early in the year, and maybe even as far back as training camp, Jermichael and I had a conversation and I clearly told him, ‘The only goal you should have this year is to play in every single football game. If you accomplish that, everything else will take care of itself.’ I believe that.
“Maybe statistically or production-wise, it didn’t go as well as he would have liked. Too many drops, that’s stating the obvious. But he still made big plays for us, had big games and he definitely draws a lot of attention. It’s important to have him out there.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.