Green Bay Packers

Jermichael Finley and What Could Have Been

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Oftentimes, the culture around social media and the general way in which fans interact with sports in their daily lives errs on the side of frenetic and tense. Twitter and Instagram interactions can be particularly virulent in this regard. However, with all of the Aaron Rodgers news bringing out the worst in seemingly everyone, it is wise to temporarily step back from the cesspool of projection and breathe easy for a while.

In my own quest to step away from the fire, I have found myself reflecting on some of my favorite memories of the Packers over the years. I did not become a big football fan until the late 2000s; many of my fond recollections are tied to the players that have come and gone during the Rodgers-era Green Bay teams. These players were much of the driving force that brought me to loving football in the first place.

I owe much of this exposure to one of my best friends growing up. My buddy — let’s call him Nathan, who lived across the road from me —  had an intricate depth of the Packers roster. He always kept me in the know of which players would be the next big thing, and Jermichael Finley was one of the first Packers players I grew an attachment to.

The Next Big Thing

In the early days of my NFL fandom, Finley looked like the next big thing. This guy was going to be the future of the tight-end position. He was going to have an impact on the field similar to players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.

Watching this projection unfold in real-time certainly seemed to deliver on this promise. Finley posted 676 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his sophomore season in 2009 with a 76.4% catch rate, seemingly well on his way to a breakout campaign in 2010. His physical measurements also stacked up well against those big-name tight ends that were regular contributors to their teams.

Finley, Gonzalez, and Gates each measured in at the combine at 6’4”. Finley and Gonzalez each ran a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash, while Gates ran a 4.6. Both Gonzalez and Gates had basketball backgrounds going into the NFL — Finley had played AAU basketball as well. So many great tight ends in NFL history have done so on the back of prospective basketball success.

In the eyes of Packers fans, Finley was going to be an offensive star whose abilities would play well off Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and Jordy Nelson. His 2010 campaign started gloriously, amassing 301 yards in five games on an 80% catch rate. Finishing all 16 games would have seen Finley approach the 1000-yard mark for the first time in his career.

However, Finley would go down with an injury and miss the rest of the season, including the Super Bowl. He would return the next season and play 16 games in 2011 and 2012, but he would never be the same. He had issues hanging onto the ball, and Finley had clearly lost a step before his final season in 2013.

Injuries upon Injuries

Finley’s biggest issue in his NFL career was that he could not stay healthy.

His meniscus injury in 2010 that forced him to miss the rest of the season also forced him to miss the Super Bowl. This knee injury is compounded with five separate known concussions, along with the traumatic spinal cord injury that effectively ended Finley’s career in 2013. Eventually, it was too much for Finley to overcome, and he announced his retirement in 2015.

Like many former NFL players, the repeated head and neck injuries took a heavy toll. Finley detailed many of these aftereffects in an article on The Players Tribune in 2017. His depiction of his own struggles with his mood and temperament with his concussions and neck injury is sobering. Although his talent was often too much to argue with, it is clear that Finley made the right decision in retiring.

Team Impact

Seven years removed from Finley’s playing days, it is curious to wonder what could have been. If Finley had played a long and productive career with Green Bay, how would that have affected the team’s fortunes?

I think of a few defining moments that could have been avoided with competent tight end play. The fallout of Finley’s retirement eventually culminated in Brandon Bostick‘s botched onside kick recovery. Finley’s presence on that team would have likely pushed either Andrew Quarless or Richard Rodgers into that special-teams role — anyone other than Bostick would have done there. That 2014 tight end room was bereft of talent in the wake of Finley’s injury.

There is also a world where, if Finley has a 10-year career with Green Bay, the Packers don’t waste their money on Jimmy Graham in 2018. The Graham signing was a flop, and it was a move made to try and get Rodgers a weapon similar to the one he had in Finley. Obviously, it did not work. The position was revitalized with the emergence of Robert Tonyan last year, though consistency from 2014-19 would have shaped this team’s fortunes much differently.

While it does not do much service to lament on the past and the “what could have been,” Finley’s budding career could have pushed the franchise to new heights. He helped pave the way for the physical archetype of tight end that so many teams look for to help out their quarterbacks. Creating this big of a mismatch serves the offense well, and Finley could capitalize on those matchups more often than not.

With a ring to his name, we cannot call Finley’s career unsuccessful by any metric. Although it is too bad, he could not spend more time on the field catching passes from Rodgers. However, his effects on the team made a lasting impact on both the front office’s decisions and the players.

Here’s to one of the good ones.

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