Gifted but inconsistent Jermichael Finley remains an enigma
By Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette
~Five years into Jermichael Finley’s NFL career, there’s still no telling whether he’ll end up more like Jackie Harris or Keith Jackson.
For those too young to know, Harris was a gifted tight end with the Packers in the early 1990s. He could stretch the field and make rare plays. He signed a lucrative contract when he left the Packers in free agency in 1994 and overall had a productive and long (12-year) NFL career. Yet, he never became the consistently game-changing player his talent suggested he might.
Jackson was another gifted tight end who had a decorated career with Philadelphia, Miami and, after Harris left, with the Packers. He was first-team All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five times. He didn’t put up the staggering numbers premier tight ends routinely do today, but he was a difference maker whose addition was a big factor in getting the Packers over the hump in their Super Bowl title season of 1996. There’s also a convincing case that had Jackson not retired after that championship, the Packers might have been better than Denver in the Super Bowl the next season.
Now there’s Finley, the team’s latest gifted tight end. Late in 2009 and early 2010, his second and third seasons in the NFL, he appeared on his way to becoming one of the game’s elite players at his position and the keystone of the Packers’ offense. But after a Week 5 cartilage injury and subsequent infection in his knee in 2010, he’s had good but not great production, a surprising problem with drops, and an inconsistent impact on opposing defenses.
The question is, why in his fifth season isn’t the 25-year-old Finley in the discussion with Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Dan Gronkowski for best tight end in the NFL?
For starters, we have to note that a game-changing receiver or tight end can impact a game not just by making plays, but by changing defensive game plans. Finley has occupied defenses more than the average starting tight end, and that has opened the game for other players.
One scout this week said teams still have been paying extra attention to Finley this season, though not as much as in the past. Defenses have have been doubling him with a safety in the red zone but less so on the rest of the field.
Big statistics don’t tell the whole story either. Finley plays on a team with quality depth at receiver, so his chances of catching, say, 85 or 90 passes aren’t as good as some tight ends. But it’s also worth noting that Graham caught 99 passes last season, and it’s hard to argue the Packers’ receiving corps is any better than the Saints’ was in 2011.
In any event, Finley last season had 55 receptions, a 13.9-yard average per catch, eight touchdowns and, depending on who’s counting, either 11 or 12 drops. Through four games this year, he has 19 catches, a 9.8-yard average, one touchdown and four drops. That’s a pace of 76 receptions, 748 yards, four touchdowns and 16 drops over a full season.
Those numbers are fine but not great. He’s affecting game plans, but not like last season and definitely not like in ‘10. Scouts say the ability is there, but good luck finding one who will rank him near Graham, Gronkowski and Davis, among others.
Finley’s main problem has been drops. He’s had an astonishing number (15) over the last 20 regular-season games for a player who appears to have such natural hands. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Finley’s 17.9 percent drop rate last season was twice Gronkowski’s (8.2 percent) and three times Davis’ (6.9 percent) and Graham’s (5.4 percent).
Coaches and quarterbacks place the highest of priorities on reliability, and drops are a sure way to erode their confidence in you.
Several factors can affect a player’s performance, anything from lingering physical or psychological issues from the knee injury to maturity issues to off-field strains.
At the top of the list, though, it might be as simple as this: He’s pressing.
The take here is that Finley has been undermining himself since 2010 with his ongoing public campaign of Year of the Takeover (YOTTO) and the like. He’s a major presence on Twitter, where he has 150,000 followers and often uses a #YOTTO hash tag. He sells YOTTO t-shirts on his website. He’s usually willing to tweet or talk publicly about how well he expects to play, and he’s often demonstrative when he makes a catch.
So when the drops started, it can’t have played well in the locker room, where teammates are aware of his high profile, as are the fans at Lambeau Field, who turn on him more and more quickly. He surely can sense the reactions, so with each error the pressure escalates.
Finley insists he’s naturally confident and outgoing, and that he engages regularly in Twitter because he enjoys interacting with fans.
“Not pressing, not at all,” he said this week. “I’ve been doing me, that’s something I always did. It’s just the game of football. I’m not always going to have eight catches for 150 yards, some days I’m going to have zero catches. I’m playing a game I love, and I’m not pressing.”
The Packers’ coaching staff always has supported Finley publicly to the hilt, and tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said he doesn’t think Finley is pressing, either.
“My perception is that you have a young kid who’s very enthusiastic and energetic and wants to play well,” Fontenot said this week. “I’ll take a player like that each and every day. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get better.”
But the feeling here is that Finley is undermining himself by continuing the high profile, that he is pressing, and that it’s a factor in his drops, including the pass he bobbled and then had dislodged by a defender in the end zone last week against New Orleans.
“He needs to get off Twitter and all that stuff for a while and just play,” said a high-profile former NFL player.
As for other factors, this week a couple of scouts and former players suggested that with some talented players, it’s whether “the light goes on.”
The light can be different things for different players.
In Harris’ case, it never went on because he never acquired the toughness to be at his best in the NFL. He never came to grips with the mental and physical sacrifices he might have to make to be great.
For T.J. Lang, the Packers’ starting left guard, it was realizing he couldn’t go out to the bars two or three nights a week and play his best football.
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