Last year Jermichael Finley dropped a lot of passes. In a study of dropped passes from tight ends over the past three years, Pro Football Focus ranked Finley as one of the worst culprits in multiple categories.
Finley will talk about a lack of chemistry and thinking too much, and some media and fans will tell you he was struggling to return from injury. Both will say, "It's not going to continue."
This past week, Finley clearly dropped at least one pass, though it appeared to be more.
We're going to look closely at every missed catch in the loss to the San Francisco 49ers and see if we have a larger problem here.
One game does not make a season (or career), but it's also a matter of when he drops the ball—not just that he does it at all.
So let's take a look at the catches he didn't make, whether they were drops and what they meant for the team.
All play details are taken from the official Game Book supplied by the NFL. If you think a time or distance is off, talk to them.
Finley was targeted 11 times, catching seven of them for a total of 47 yards and a touchdown.
Before we talk misses, let's talk hits. Finley made several outstanding catches, often while being hit. In general—and you can bet you'll be seeing more of this as teams watch the tape—the Niners played incredibly physical when covering the Packers receivers.
So when Finley was catching the ball, he was often catching a beating.
He hung on to a few tough catches though, which tells you he can hang onto the ball.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at his four misses.
1-15-SF 43 (8:29) (No Huddle, Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to J.Finley.
The formation on this first quarter play was interesting, which is why I broke out the GardaStrator (the telestrator is in the shop) to throw a cap up for it.
On this play there are three receivers wide, with Finley offset to the right of the offensive line. Here's the interesting glitch—that's second year receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield.
Leave it to McCarthy to find a way to get an extra receiver—especially a dynamic playmaker like Cobb—onto the field.
The slot receiver and a flanker to the left of the line (flanker because he's slightly behind the slot an line of scrimmage), and another to the far right.
Cobb might be called a slot back if we were being accurate, but McCarthy probably calls him the "Weapon X in the background" or something.
The right flanker and the slot head on vertical routes, as does Finley, while the left flanker cuts in about five yards past the line of scrimmage.
Cobb slips out for a short route from the backfield.
It's pretty obvious on tape, Rodgers wants to throw a bomb an having three receivers in the end zone, makes it hard for the Niners to cover all three, theoretically.
Two players converge on Finley, causing pass interference and he misses the ball. The ball, as you can see, was almost uncatchable anyway.
Ultimately, even had he gotten a hand on it, certainly in no way a drop.
3-2-SF 49 (4:50) (Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to J.Finley.
This is most definitely a drop, and what's more, it's a badly timed and ugly one.
On this play, Finley is wide to the right in the Z or flanker spot. There are three receivers wide left and one player in the backfield.
As you can see, Rodgers wants to go to Finley right away. This is a short, timing route where Finley will make the catch just past the first down marker, keeping the drive going.
The Packers are down by a lot and are at the point of needing to score on every drive.
Finley comes off the line and is clean; he has perfect position on the defender, and Rodgers delivers a fantastic ball.
As you can see, it pretty much hits him right on the numbers...then falls through his hands and hits the turf.
It's a killer of a drop. Instead of 1st-and-10 in San Fran territory, it's fourth down and time to punt.
1-10-GB 19 (:46) (Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass incomplete short middle to J.Finley [A.Brooks].
Here's one I am split on.
On the one hand, he was definitely interfered with despite the lack of flag. That will throw anyone off.
On the other hand, he had both hands on the ball—you have to haul those in.
As you can see in the first screen cap, the play is a bit complicated. Finley and the slot receiver run a little out and up move, virtually the same route side by side while the flanker streaks down the sideline.
On the other side, you have what looks like the beginnings of a drag route by the flanker and a short out by the running back.
As you can see, Finley is clearly interfered with. He's flat out held. That said, right next to that shot you can see him get two hands on the ball.
A tough catch? Sure. Impossible? Not at all, and the type of catch a guy like Finley has to make.
So technically you could point to the interference as enough to throw him off, but I am more inclined to say he should have hung onto it.
The damage from this drop, unlike the last one, is mitigated by a fantastic Randall Cobb catch for 16 yards.
2-6-SF 48 (14:24) (No Huddle, Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass incomplete short middle to J.Finley (N.Bowman)
On this play it's awfully hard to tell how much of a chance Finley has to haul this in. We get no replay and it sure as heck seems like 49er linebacker Navarro Bowman is draped over the Packers tight end before the ball ever comes close.
That said, it's a pretty wide shot and you can't see much.
On the play, the receivers next to Finley are both lined up as flankers. The widest one runs a vertical route while the interior receiver goes a little more shallow, then cuts in.
Finley runs the same route, but underneath the others. With the first two receivers clearing out the coverage, Finley has a one-on-one situation, and pretty good position on Bowman.
The throw is pretty good—Rodgers puts it where only Finley has much of a shot at it. It might be a bit too low and away, but it's close enough. You can't tell if Bowman is on Finley too early or if he gets a hand on the ball.
Nor can you tell if Finley could have brought it in.
I chalk this up to 'unknown' and give Finley the benefit of the doubt.
Are the drops a problem?
Of the two definite drops, one was brutal, and the other was unfortunate but survivable.
In this particular case, no, it wasn't the end of the world, though the third down one was a killer.
Will they be a problem long term?
They might be.
Here's why—the drops in this game were a result of a very physical style of play by the excellent Niners' defense. Now, we can argue about some of the missed calls, but those happen with normal referees as well.
However, Finley clearly was thrown off by the physical level of play. Whether he was hearing footsteps by the end or merely a little off is hard to tell.
You can be sure the Chicago Bears are watching tape of this game closely. If they see that between Sunday and last year that the more physical you play Finley, the more drops he has, you can bet they will hit him early and often and make sure he knows they are waiting to do it again.
It's like fumbling—once they know you're having issues, players will hit the ball every time to see if you drop it and to get in your head.
This is the same for Finley. The more he drops balls, the more teams will try to replicate that. If the physical play rattles Finley, they'll pump that up.
In which case it could be a huge issue for Jermichael Finley in 2012.