Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley has spent the last two weeks struggling through a difficult shoulder injury. Finley deserves a lot of credit for not missing any games due this injury, one which his coaching staff initially believed could keep him out for an extended period.
While Finley is admirable in fighting through the pain, it’s no surprise that he’s seen a big drop in his playing time. Aaron Rodgers is targeting him less frequently: he had only two targets on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams and two the previous week against the Houston Texans.
But even before his injury in Week 5, Finley’s targets had dropped off. In Week 1, Rodgers threw the ball Finley’s way 11 times for 7 receptions. However, from Week 2 until Finley’s injury in Week 5, that number has dropped considerably.
It’s not just in the receiving game that Finley is seeing less action. Due mostly to his injury, Finley has been held out most blocking plays. Backup tight ends Tom Crabtree and D.J. Williams have seen increased playing time since Finley’s injury and even before.
Even though these drops in playing time stems from Finley’s shoulder injury, it’s a fair question to ask whether his role is changing in the Green Bay offense. This is the guy around whom the Packers designed the entire offense in 2010 before his Week 5, season-ending injury that year. He was going to be their go-to superstar tight end/receiver. That’s how much talent the Packers believe (believed?) he has (had?). But, now in his fifth year, Finley has failed to reach that level of play that could justify giving him a starring role in the offense. Over the last two weeks, the offense clearly hasn’t skipped a beat in his diminished role, putting up 660 passing yards, 9 touchdowns, and zero turnovers.
Here’s what I’m getting: it’s not a bad thing for the Packers when Finley plays fewer snaps. Particularly when it comes to blocking, Finley has been underachieving for a long time. Crabtree and Williams don’t have the great hands of receivers, but they’re superior to Finley as blocking tight ends, despite Finley’s size advantage. As Finley recovers from his injury, I hope the Packers will continue to use Crabtree, Williams, and even Ryan Taylor more and more in blocking schemes.
As a receiving tight end, Finley has also disappointed. He has had a persistent case of the drops dating back to last season, and targets in his direction are targets away from Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb. The problem with Finley – and his frequent complaint – is that he needs a lot of catches thrown his way to get into a rhythm.
On an offense as stacked as Green Bay, the Packers can’t afford to spend throws warming up one player when the other talented receivers have proven themselves no matter how many passes they’ve had. The rest of the receiving corp has made the most of their opportunities and Finley has not always done the same. You don’t get to be the number one guy on a team that has as many receiving threats as the Packers do. Through seven weeks, the Packers have spread the ball around, with four different Packer receivers having led the team in receptions. Rodgers’ favorite receiver is always the open one.
Look at another receiver who has had similar issues to Finley. James Jones struggled with drops the previous two seasons and had earned the ire of many a Packer fan. Jones came back this season with a lot of focus and has not only cut down on the drops, but has made huge catches in crunch time in almost every game. Jones did not get a lot of targets, but he made the most of them when he did. Until Finley proves himself like Jones did, the Packers can’t and won’t make him a focal point in the offense.
As Finley gets back to health, the Packers should continue to go to him when he gets those crazy mismatches on a smaller defensive back or a slow-footed linebacker. However, other than those matchups, the other receivers on the team should continue to get looks ahead of Finley.