GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers didn’t hear a word of the interview, but he didn’t have to. From across the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, the quarterback saw the throng surrounding tight end Jermichael Finley’s locker, and he knew.
He had nothing to worry about.
Continuing a trend that began during organized team activity practices, the once-loquacious tight end is no more. He has been replaced -- at least for now, although he will tell you it’s permanent – with a less controversial, less talkative fellow who stood at his locker for 8 minutes after Wednesday’s training-camp practice and uttered some variation on the phrase I’m just playing football no fewer than 11 times. Other favorite phrases were doing things the right way (five times), doing what I’m supposed to do (three times), getting better every day (three times) and everything will take care of itself (four times).
After it was over and the crowd had dispersed, Finley was asked why he’d made the obviously conscious decision to tone down his outspoken act.
“It’s more knowing your position and knowing where you’re at. I wasn’t doing it wrong (before), but there’s a way to go about it,” Finley explained. “This is what you do for a living. Right now, I’m on a pedestal, so everything I say … I just want to do everything the right way, just squash out everything.
“You live and learn. But at the same time, it’s all about doing things the right way, and that’s what I’m about right now. The football field comes easy. That’s no problem. It’s doing things the right way and how my image is in the public.
“I would say (the way I was before) wasn’t making me comfortable. I was getting (criticized) on the out(side), I was getting things on the in(side). So why not just do it the right way? I’ve got a career that took off on path that, I mean, I didn’t know being outspoken was going to put me on. Anything I say is big-time, so it’s weird to me.
“But if you play football, everything else will take care of itself.”
Given a synopsis of Finley’s Q&A with reporters, Rodgers smiled.
“I think he’s been different. I think he’s been different in his approach since the middle of last season,” Rodgers said, sounding genuinely proud. “I think he’s really wanted to be one of the guys and show the guys he cares about it and he’s dedicated and he wants to have a big season. Him and I are doing great. He has the desire to be a better tight end; I think he knows the numbers he put up last year, he’s capable of exceeding those and becoming a Pro Bowl tight end, and I think he really desperately wants to do that.”
At 26, Finley knows his NFL career is at a critical point. The Packers thought long and hard about paying him the $3 million roster bonus he was due in March, and when they did, it ran Finley’s total compensation in this, the final year of his contract, to $8.25 million.
Midway through last season, Finley had dropped seven passes in the first eight games, his agent had questioned via social media Rodgers’ leadership, and Finley had continued to make headlines – sometimes through no fault of his own – with his words instead of his play.
One example: In December, the Packers were getting set to face the archrival Chicago Bears, who were going to be without perennial Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. In meetings, the coaches had emphasized that Urlacher’s replacement, Nick Roach, commanded respect. Finley then went into the locker room and, choosing his words poorly, said, "Urlacher is at the end of his career right now; he’s playing a little slow out there. I don’t think they’re losing too much if he’s out. Putting another guy in might help them a little.”
That, of course, led to bulletin-board material in the Bears locker room, even though Finley was trying to pay Roach a compliment. (Nevermind the fact that Finley's blunt scouting report on Urlacher, who retired after the Bears chose not to re-sign him this offseason, was accurate.)
Based on how Finley was on Wednesday, such verbal missteps could be a thing of the past. Although he hasn't made a ton of what coach Mike McCarthy calls "flash" plays, the coach is still quite pleased with the camp Finley is having.
Asked in his daily post-practice press conference what he’s seen from Finley this summer, McCarthy replied, “He’s not in the media every day. That’s a good thing.” Then, McCarthy added, “That was a joke. (I) liked it, too.”
But as with many jokes, there was some truth to it. And McCarthy is excited about what Finley could do is he’s focused – as he appears to be – and not creating undue distractions for himself.
“Jermichael loves football. He pours a lot into it,” McCarthy said. “His offseason training outside the building is top notch as far as the time he spends in Arizona and over there in Minneapolis. He’s stronger, he’s back to the Jermichael Finley of 2009 or ‘10. He’s where he needs to be, he’s in a very good place. I think he’s having a heck of a camp.”
While Finley wouldn’t say how much he weighs right now – he’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds, as he was last year, but said he’d gained about 10 pounds – he is clearly heavier than he was before. During the 2011 lockout, Finley unapologetically dropped significant weight believing he was more of a wide receiver than a tight end. Now, he looks as he did in 2009, when he had a breakout season (55 catches, 676 yards, five touchdowns) and capped it with a franchise-record 159 receiving yards in an NFC Wild Card loss at Arizona.
“That’s how good I feel. I can’t say how things are going to play out, but that’s how good I feel,” Finley said. “Look, I’m at a point where I can be mediocre, or I can play lights out. You never know what’s going to happen in this league, so the key to me is being healthy and helping my team win.”
Finley started looking a bit more like that player during the second half of last season, as he got on the same page with Rodgers through weekly meetings the two would have. 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), catching 26 passes in the final five regular-season games.
Finley admitted that the last time he was in a contract year – in 2011 – he put too much pressure on himself and it affected him. Given his demeanor Wednesday, he’s in a better place to prevent that from bothering him this time around.
“I believe everybody that plays this game puts pressure on themselves at some point. Yeah I did,” Finley admitted. “But now I’m just playing football. It’s not rocket science at all.”
And according to Rodgers, Finley’s changed approach is a function of the vibe coursing through the team as a whole.
“I think you can’t help but be caught up in the energy that’s in this locker room. It’s a different feel than we’ve had here in awhile, and it’s an excitement – a young hunger, a focused group of guys who don’t want to be distractions. And it’s very refreshing to see that,” Rodgers said. “He’s right there, being a great leader to the young guys in this room.”
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.