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Will Joe Philbin’s return bring potency back to the Packers’ tight ends?

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Since the departure of Philbin and Jermichael Finley soon after, the Packers’ tight ends have lacked a punch.

Green Bay Packers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The name Joe Philbin may not have carried the same pizzazz in the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator search as the hot, up-and-coming candidates on the market. Yet, there should be a sense of intrigue for the Packer offense entering the 2018 season.

Under Philbin’s direction during his first term as coordinator from 2007 to 2011, the Packers’ offense was more than effective. Green Bay finished in the top ten of the NFL in total yards and scoring each of those seasons. In fact, the Packers matched that feat during all but two of Philbin’s seasons in Green Bay, beginning during his stint as offensive line coach in 2003 — the only exceptions being the ugly 2005 and 2006 campaigns. Philbin’s last season in Green Bay was perhaps his best, as he and the playcalling of Mike McCarthy guided the offense to a league-best total in points scored and a third-place ranking in passing and total yards.

With a healthy Aaron Rodgers under center, the Packers have been able to sustain top ten rankings consistently in those categories in the years following Philbin. But one thing the Packers have lacked in the passing game since Philbin left to take the head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins in 2012 is a dynamic tight end group.

A weapon that Philbin and Rodgers shared during the assistant coach’s first tour of duty was Jermichael Finley. Although injuries and drops were routine knocks on Finley during his stay in Green Bay, the benefits outside those deficiencies were enormous. Packers fans will remember Finley’s sensational performance against the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 playoffs, where his six-catch, 159-yard showing nearly pulled the Packers to victory after getting into a large first half hole. But Finley’s value in Green Bay stretched well beyond that playoff game.

In three of Finley’s five seasons with the Green and Gold, two with Philbin as offensive coordinator, he accumulated at least 55 catches and 667 yards. The oversized receiver probably would have added to that total in a 2010 season that was lost to injury after just three games, two of which saw Finley eclipse 100 receiving yards. Finley’s 2011 season provided a glimpse of the complete package, as the former Texas Longhorn racked up 55 catches for 767 yards and eight touchdowns.

There was little doubt that Rodgers enjoyed the athleticism and size that the six-foot-four tight end provided, and Philbin and McCarthy’s offense catered to those desires. Finley reached at least 72 targets during the regular season three times and was a big-play demon, averaging at least 10.9 yards per reception every season in Green Bay. To be inside or near the NFL’s top 10 in receiving tight end categories is impressive. But to do so in the midst of a deep Packers receiving corps is a serious testament to Finley’s value.

Since Finley’s career-ending injury in 2013, however, the Packers simply have not been able to replace that kind of powerful player, or level of production, at the tight end position. Maybe that’s why Finley himself approved of Philbin’s re-hire.

The Packers have seemingly tried to add pieces, selecting Richard Rodgers in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft and Kennard Backman in the sixth round in 2015. They also uncharacteristically dove into the free agency pool last offseason with the signings of pass-catching players Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, two tight ends that figured to bolster the position and add to McCarthy’s array of offensive packages.

Yet, none of these moves have achieved the desired result. Granted, an athletic freak like Finley is difficult to find and replace. But the Packers can still gameplan to utilize the tight ends better than they have.

Richard Rodgers had a steady 2015 season in which he broke the 500-yard barrier with 85 targets and eight touchdowns. But even in the midst of what was a solid year, Rodgers averaged just 8.8 yards per reception that season, a far cry from Finley’s 12.5 yard career average. And since that season? Rodgers has not come even remotely close to duplicating those figures.

Neither have the other hopeful options on the Green Bay roster. Andrew Quarless was a mainstay during the Finley transition, but was not able to evolve into more than a second tight end during his Packers career that ended in 2015. Even in 2017, the combined trio of Bennett, Kendricks, and Rodgers reached 85 targets, 54 catches, and 596 yards. While the average yards per catch figure of that group hovered around 11, it was not an accurate depiction of the Packers’ inadequacy at the position. Green Bay’s offensive minds struggled to get the tight ends involved and build Aaron Rodgers’ trust early on, even before his injury.

Meanwhile, Philbin was able to continue developing receiving tight ends with the Dolphins during his stay in Miami from 2012-2015. In the middle years of his tenure, Charles Clay posted Finley-like production before leaving for Buffalo in free agency after the 2014 season. As the Indianapolis Colts’ Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Line Coach, Philbin was a member of a staff that saw significant production from its two tight ends, with Jack Doyle and Dwayne Allen amassing 94 catches and just shy of 1,000 yards receiving in 2016. Even in an abysmal Andrew Luck-less season last year, Doyle hauled in 80 passes.

The hope in Green Bay for 2018 is that Philbin can restore creativity in packages to involve the tight end from multiple formations. That starts with securing weapons. Richard Rodgers is a free agent and Kendricks returns on the last year of his two-year deal from last offseason. It is possible that neither is in a Packer uniform next season. Even if Rodgers would sign a team-friendly extension, the Packers will surely be in the market to upgrade the position with a younger player that can provide even a resemblance of Finley.

Could Green Bay make a splash in free agency for a player with an injury-riddled past in Tyler Eifert, who still has the size and ability to be a downfield threat at age 27? The cost could come cheaper than expected on a prove-it type of deal. Would Green Bay consider a tight end early in the draft such as Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews or the quick-rising Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State? Could the Packers try to find a later-round gem such as Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas who is still learning the position but has an uncommon blend of speed and receiving skills for a man his size?

Whichever route the Packers and General Manager Brian Gutekunst decide to take, the Packers must get back to utilizing their new tight end in enhanced packages. The Super Bowl provided an example of two teams that perfectly align their offenses around a talented tight end. With McCarthy and Philbin reunited, the Packers might have taken a step towards doing it themselves.