While our 2009 wasn't as successful as it was for other teams, we saw enough to expect more success in 2010 and beyond. There's a lot to like about the Green Bay Packers going forward, unless of course you're cheering for the other team. But which players fit in the best? Which don't? Which ones are keepers, and which ones need to be driven out of town? It's time to look at who did well (and who didn't), and ultimately what their role will be going forward.
There are so many different ways to explore Jermichael Finley, how he did in 2009, and what he means to the Packers going forward, but I'd like to relate a (lengthy) personal story that helps show exactly what Finley brings to the table.
During my short time at Rutgers University, I was heavily involved with intramural sports, particularly basketball. My junior year, I played on a team with one of my co-workers, but for my senior season I decided to recruit and coach my own team. During the recruiting process (which involved going to the gym at random times, observing players that had some modicum of basketball skill, and asking them if they were interested), I met a young guy named Scott.
When I first met him, I had no idea what to expect. He was a 6'3" junior college transfer who routinely came to the gym to shoot free throws...in jeans. Obviously, he loved the sport and enjoyed playing, but if he's not even going to come with shorts, could I depend on him in actual games? He was a relatively introverted fellow, but I figured "Hey, I need size, let's give it a shot."
At my team's first "practice", I could tell that Scott had played organized ball before. He had good positioning, good fundamentals, and communicated well. He was a deferential player, though, so I had few chances to see any of his individual skill. During one defensive possession, though, he came through with one of the most impressive sequences I've ever seen in a pick-up game. He:
- Picked up the opposing guard, who had the ball
- Deflected an entry pass back to the guard
- Defended an initial drive, forcing the guard to reset on the perimeter
- Let the guard dribble towards the rim on the wing, shadowing him as he drove
- Blocked the layup attempt against the backboard
- Gathered the ball and started dribbling up court
- Passed the ball through a defender's legs to me at half-court
- Sprinted past the other defender, towards the rim
- Caught an admittedly poorly-timed pass on his back shoulder at the elbow
- Took a dribble, gathered, and elevated
- Dunked with two hands. (With authority!)
Now, on paper, it doesn't seem as impressive. But believe me, the entire process took about a third ofthe time that it took for you to just read it, and it silenced the gym. Even games being played on courts next to ours. His athleticism was so transcendent that it defied description. My team was excited about our prospects for the season.
So why did my team go 4-3 and lose in the first round of the playoffs? Partially because we opened the second half of our playoff game on the wrong side of a 21-2 run, and partially because I ruined the team chemistry by panicking and adding a skilled-but-selfish guard when I got hurt, but mainly because we didn't find a way to harness Scott's natural talents to create mismatches. (For any NBA fans out there, Scott's game was a lot like Tyreke Evans, where he could wreak havoc against smaller or slower players. Unfortunately, I insisted on using him like Lamar Odom or Andrei Kirilenko; asking him to do a lot of different things and not excel at one or two things.)
So how does this relate to Jermichael Finley and the Packers? It's all about mismatches.
* * *
In 2008, the 6'5" 250-lb. monster from Texas disappointed on nearly all levels. It was clear that he came out of college a bit too early in his deveopment, and he wasn't prepared to be a consistent contributor at the NFL level. He even publicly criticized Aaron Rodgers, which was one of the dumbest things a young Packer could have done at that point in the franchise's history. Despite all this, the coaches and front office stuck with him, refusing to go after established veterans or highly-touted college players.
In my experience, these situations have a very low probability of actually working out. I call it the "Mike Williams Effect". Players are drafted based on a very short timeline of production, exciting teams with their raw athleticism and natural gifts, but they simply don't have the maturity, mental acuity, or personal flexibility to make it at the next level. They want to do only what they are good at, virtually refusing to expand their game. Often times, like top-10 pick Mike Williams (the receiver), they flame out in less than spectacular fashion.
Jermichael Finley was in danger of falling to the Mike Williams Effect. He hadn't shown more than flashes of brilliance for two preseasons and training camps. He had a reputation for being childish and immature. So why didn't he fade into the void of forgotten NFL players? Why did he make the jump when so many others fell short?
Because the coaches gave him the best chance to consistently succeed.
Say what you want about McCarthy's playcalling, personnel decisions, headscratching challenges, or other annoying habits. But he deserves all the credit in the world for working with Finley and training him to become a WR/TE hybrid. How many other tight ends can split out wide and still be a viable threat? I can think of two right away: Jason Witten and Dallas Clark, and neither of them have Finley's size or athleticism.
Think about what Finley has done this season. Not only did he establish himself as a viable red-zone threat, but he made the 2-TE set fashionable again, as well as the 8-yard drag that turns into a 14-yard completion. He's taking catches away from Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. He's become the de facto #3 wide receiver, which actually hurts the development of James Jones and Jordy Nelson.
The ability to switch between a 2-WR set to a 3-WR set in mere seconds was and is going to be one of the staples of Green Bay's offense going forward. If McCarthy can coax the defense to go into the nickel, that creates an advantage for the running game. If the defense doesn't bite, that's fine, because we can just match Finley up with a linebacker or, better yet, a cornerback, and create mismatches downfield. We know these mismatches are favorable from Finley's statistics (55 catches, 676 yards, 5 touchdowns).
Quite simply, you cannot cover Jermichael Finley unless you double him and one of the defenders is over 6'2". So until a Randy Moss-sized safety comes into the league, prepare for Jermichael Finley to take the title of "best receiving TE" from the likes of Witten, Clark, Antonio Gates, and Tony Gonzalez.
And he's only 22.