GREEN BAY – For all the grief that Jermichael Finley has taken – and, as the Green Bay Packers tight end readily admits, he frequently brings it upon himself – perhaps nothing creates a bigger stir than when he brings up the issue of his chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
He talked about it during organized team activities in May. Then there was agent Blake Baratz questioning Rodgers’ leadership ability via Twitter in September, which Finley denied having any role in. The topic came up again in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel weekly magazine Packer Plus in November.
But here’s the thing: As is often the case with Finley, it appears he was simply being honest. He may not have gone about it the right way, and he might’ve chosen some of his words poorly, but it looks like he was right.
Because as his fifth NFL season – and, perhaps, his final year with the Packers – winds down, Finley, who has 24 receptions for 324 yards and a touchdown in the past six games, is playing arguably his best football since the knee injury that ended his 2010 season. And why is he playing so well?
Because he’s on the same page with his quarterback, who has made a concerted effort to connect with Finley in recent weeks.
“It makes a huge difference, just because I look at him as not only a player I play with, I look up to him because of the position he’s in. I look up to ‘12’ more than just as a football player now – as a person,” Finley said. “It’s valuable. I always tell ‘12,’ ‘We’re more like each other than different.’ We’re not like each other across the board, but I think we’ve found things where we’re alike. They say he’s a little sensitive – that’s me, too. They say he’s competitive – and I’m competitive to the max. I think some things match up.”
One other similarity: Back when their chemistry was an issue, neither player was making the effort to come together. Rodgers’ leadership style is one that asks his teammates to show him that they care, and while others were doing that, Finley wasn’t.
For example, first-year wide receiver Jeremy Ross, who was called up from the practice squad on Dec. 1, said that the NFL MVP gives him all the time he needs when he comes to him with questions about the playbook – even though Ross is the No. 7 receiver on the depth chart.
“I try to pick Aaron’s brain a lot. I talk to him a lot, just to see what he’s thinking, so we can be on the same page,” Ross said. “Because if there is a situation where I have to contribute on offense, I want to be on the same page as Aaron so when I get out there, I already know what he’s thinking, I know what type of signals he’s going to throw up, I know his gestures, his looks.
“He’s a guy that, he likes people that want to be better. He loves people that want to learn and are humble. He’s a really down-to-earth guy. He’s been so kind to take his time and sit down with me and go over stuff. When we’re at the hotel (the night before games), I can go into his room and we go over and over stuff. He’s been a great help.”
Then, in October, Rodgers decided he needed to take a different approach with Finley. Twice, he’d invited Finley to come to his room to talk football – and life – but Finley didn’t show. So he sought Finley out after the team’s 9 o’clock meeting broke the night before the team’s Oct. 14 game at Houston and made sure the meeting happened.
And every week since, it has.
“With a lot of guys I have just the open door policy. You know where my locker is, come talk to me. I got time,” Rodgers explained. “Some guys, you need to put a little more time in yourself.
“I’ve enjoyed getting together with J-Mike and just talking ball and talking life. He’s a big-time player. I don’t want to say that (the meetings are) the reason that he’s been playing better; I think he’s been getting more opportunities, I think he’s feeling healthy. He was dealing with a significant shoulder injury early in the season. He’s feeling healthy and he’s running strong and making big plays down the field. He’s doing the things that we know he’s capable of doing, so I’m really proud of him. I think he’s been doing a really good job and we’re going to need it down the stretch here.”
Finley, who suffered a A/C joint separation in his shoulder Oct. 7 at Indianapolis, caught only two passes for 12 yards against the Texans that night while playing in pain, but his involvement in the offense has steadily increased since.
“Any time players spend time to together, it’s beneficial,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m a big believer that you don’t just win because you spend more time (on the practice field). I think winning championships is much more beyond that. You talk about chemistry, you talk about culture. Everybody talks about how do you build it, (but) how do you continue to grow it?
“Those are the types of things that are so important, the group dynamics. So when you see relationships like Aaron and Jermichael’s – and there’s a bunch of them going on – that’s very important to team success. It’s helped everybody. It’s not just helped Aaron play better or Jermichael, it’s helped everybody because they all invest into the chemistry of the locker room. That’s how you win, in my opinion.”
According to quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, who was Finley’s position coach before moving to QBs in the offseason, for all his bravado, Finley might have been afraid to approach Rodgers and needed him to make the first move.
“I’ll say this: Jermichael and I go back. He’s important to me. I care about him. I want him to do well. And whatever he is doing right now, he is headed in the right direction, and it’s nice to see him playing well, playing fast, playing confident,” McAdoo said. “So whatever’s going on there (between Rodgers and Finley) needs to continue.
“It’s different. He’s established, he’s an NFL MVP, he’s a Super Bowl MVP, and he may be even more valuable this year than he was last year. He probably is, with a lot of things having changed this year. He has to make that effort now. So I can see that.
“I can see why guys might feel a little intimidated to approach him. He’s like Bon Jovi.”
While McAdoo’s comparison might be a bit dated – “I’m a little out of touch,” he said, laughing, of his Bon Jovi reference – there’s no denying that Finley’s game has changed for the better.
At Detroit on Nov. 18, he had a 20-yard touchdown catch and an enormous 40-yard catch-and-run to set up the game-winning touchdown. Against Minnesota on Dec. 2, he caught six passes – his most receptions since he had seven in the season opener against San Francisco on Sept. 9 – for 60 yards. One of those catches against the Vikings was a 21-yard gain on third-and-9 from the Green Bay 21-yard line, a play that led to a field goal.
“The night before that game, Aaron and Jermichael talked together about running a route a certain way if they got a certain coverage. It was a big third-down in the game, and they got the coverage they had talked about and Jermichael did what they had talked about,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of the play. “Things like that, if you can be on the same page, and the quarterback knows what the receiver is going to do and he does it and does it well, it’s going to make both guys more productive.”
Now, Finley enters the regular-season finale at Minnesota Sunday with 53 receptions for 595 yards and two touchdowns, putting him two shy of his career high in receptions (55, which he set in 2009 and matched in 2011) and three shy of the franchise single-season record for receptions by a tight end (56, set by Paul Coffman in 1979).
While ProFootballFocus.com has him for nine dropped passes on the season, Finley has only two drops in the past seven games. And in last Sunday’s 55-7 blowout of the Tennessee Titans, Finley had five catches for a season-high 70 yards, including catches on three consecutive plays on the final drive of the first half.
“It’s an awesome feeling to get back comfortable,” Finley said. “I done fair. There’s room to improve. Hopefully we can start peaking next week. The sky’s the limit for this team and this offense right now.
“I’m just blocking everything out, sticking to what I know and just playing football.”
Whether it’s enough to convince general manager Ted Thompson to bring Finley back in 2013 remains to be seen. The two-year, $14 million deal Finley signed in February calls for him to receive a $3 million roster bonus on the 15th day of the new league year in March, and his base salary for 2013 is $4.45 million.
Finley said he wasn’t blindsided by the Dec. 15 Journal Sentinel story about the Packers intentions to trade or release him after the season – Finley said the writer, Bob McGinn, told him what he was writing before it ran – but that he hopes it won’t turn out to be true. If it does, he said he wants to go out playing well and with a chance to earn the Super Bowl ring he didn’t feel he helped get during the 2010 title run.
“I’m not concerned. I’m playing great football right now, at the end of the season,” Finley said. “I want to be a Packer for life. If Ted makes the decision that he doesn’t want me here, I would be distraught and disappointed just because I love the way things are going around here. I’d be more disappointed than the average person who leaves here. But I’m not worried about it right now. I’m trying to get that ring.
“The thing about me lately, I’m trying to keep quiet and just tie my shoes up, touch the grass and show what I can do. I’m trying to let my play talk now.
“You have to realize, with me, I was raised up off of this football game, brought up to go play this sport once I got old enough. This is what I do. This is what I breathe. This is what I do. And it kills me when people stab me in the back, hit me in the head, knock me down. Because I’m always going to give it my all. You have to know that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.