Many assumed Jermichael Finley’s relationship with the Green Bay Packers would come to an end after five up-and-down years. Instead, the Packers are keeping the former third-round pick on for Year Six.
In some ways, Finley has been like a first love to the Packers. He has excited and enraged them; he has given them hope and despair; he has helped them find their identity, which over the years they’ve come to realize does not need to include him. It all started a few years ago, when Finley’s uncanny athleticism undoubtedly played a part in Mike McCarthy’s initial inspiration to install the type of “West Coast spread” system that Green Bay has ridden to such great success.
Ironically, many of the achievements that derived from what Finley helped inspire have seemed to come in spite of Finley. His scintillating gifts –- lanky frame, speed, fluid change-of-direction, supple body control -– have often been outweighed by mistakes, injuries or just good old-fashioned immaturity (you know, the type of immaturity it takes for a player to publicly speculate that maybe his quarterback doesn’t personally like him?). The results agreed with the Finley paradox. In 2010, the Packers won a Super Bowl in 2010 with him on injured reserve. In 2011, they went 15-1 even though Finley, plagued by drops, kept falling further and further down Aaron Rodgers’ pecking order. Prior to the 2012 season, Packers GM Ted Thompson gave Finley an unusual one foot in/one foot out type contract (two years, $15 million) because he had no idea what to expect from the guy.
Thompson has now decided Finley is still worth the $8.25 million that that deal pays him in 2013 – even though 2014 is likely to present the GM with the same ambiguity of two years ago. For Finley, it’s too bad he didn’t get dumped two weeks ago, before Jared Cook cashed in on the initial free agent frenzy with a five-year deal worth $35 million deal ($19 million guaranteed) from the Rams. It reasons that Finley could have easily garnered more than $20 million guaranteed.
The Packers understand that Finley is another version of Cook, only better. He’s a uniquely-sized 25-year-old whose best attribute has always been potential. His unimpressive-but-not-deplorable blocking is something an offensive coordinator can easily see past when fantasizing about all the formation wrinkles he’ll install with a stallion like this.
That’s what Finley originally did for Green Bay’s offense; he advanced the notion of position flexibility. In 2009, the Packers realized they had a tight end who could not just run the entire route tree out of a traditional alignment up front, but could also flex out and run the entire route tree from the slot, the 2-hole in a 3x1 spread set (i.e. the middle receiver in trips sets) or the X-receiver spot on an island outside.
This posed myriad problems for a defensive coordinator. For starters, a once-simple decision of what personnel package to use -– base? nickel? dime? -– became complicated. With Finley on the field, there was no way to know until Green Bay broke the huddle whether the offense would line up in a run formation or pass formation. And if it was a run formation, there was still the very real threat of a pass because Finley was so explosive off the line from a three-point stance -– especially if he was facing a linebacker.
That was the other problem: matchups. Most linebackers had no chance against Finley. When a defense responded by guarding him with a safety, or even a slot corner, Green Bay discovered that when they aligned Finley outside the numbers -– like a wide receiver –- those safeties and slot corners weren’t comfortable in their man coverage assignments. Or, if it was zone and those defenders stayed inside, they weren’t accustomed to facing guys like Greg Jennings and Donald Driver – elite wide receivers with elite receiver-type speed, elite receiver-type quickness and elite receiver-type moves.
The formation flexibility that Finley brought had the double reward of making the Packers unpredictable and the defense extra predictable. Often the way a defense responded to Finley’s alignment before the snap revealed whether the coverage was man or zone. And those coverages tended to be more basic because defensive coordinators were worried about whichever one of their linebackers, safeties or backup corners was caught on the wrong end of a mismatch.
The Packers have since figured out ways to create formation flexibility without Finley, which is why until March 25, they seemed willing to let him go. But the departure of Greg Jennings complicated things enough to convince Thompson that Finley was worth overspending on for at least one more year. (It will help if Finley plays more like he did in the second half of the season; he had -11.5% DVOA and 63 percent catch rate before Green Bay's bye in Week 10, but 27.5% DVOA and 78 percent catch rate afterwards.)
Finley isn’t worth what young superstar tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham are worth. He’s far too inconsistent. But he and those three guys are the only tight ends in the league who have enough athleticism to win one-on-one matchups against any defender out of any formation and anywhere on the field. There are gobs of other flexible tight ends who pose similar pluses for their offense, but none of them -– save for maybe Vernon Davis, who has too limitations as a route runner -– can do so simply by taking the field. Most tight ends have to be aided somewhat by the play design. Finley, just with his terrifying raw talent, can pose threats that defenses aren’t accustom to dealing with.