As the Packers' 2009 season plays out, and yet another football lands in the hands of the Packers No. 88, I've adopted a new twist on an old acronym:
TGIF - Thank God It's Finley...
Packers GM Ted Thompson's 2008 draft will never be featured at the top of his resume. Jordy Nelson, Brian Brohm, and Patrick Lee were the first three picks of that draft. While I like Nelson, and think he will develop into a very useful receiver, Brian Brohm was a certified bust from day one, and Patrick Lee is just one more injury away from being called the same.
But Thompson did uncover a hidden gem in that draft. In the third round (pick 91) Thompson selected a young underclassman from the University of Texas.
After less than two full seasons, it's not a stretch to say that Jermichael Finley could turn out to be the steal of the entire 2008 draft.
Finley played only two seasons at Texas, and after only 26 games, he was already the third all-time receiving tight end in Texas history. A father of two children, yet essentially still a kid (Finley turned 21 just before the 2008 Draft), Finley felt the need to move on to life's next challenge.
The Packers first took notice of Finley a week before the NFL combine. Said tight ends coach Bob McAdoo, "When you start watching guys, obviously you look for things you can't coach, and I think he has a few of those qualities. He's someone who was intriguing the minute you turned the tape on."
Finley did not do particularly well at the combine, running only a 4.82 in the 40-yard dash. That and his limited experience scared off a lot of NFL teams, but not the Packers. They went into the draft prepared to take him with the second of their two second-round picks, but when Brian Brohm and Patrick Lee "fell into their laps" (collective groan from Packers fans...), the Packers' plans were sidetracked.
Luckily, the Packers found Finley still waiting for them in the third round, and now a lot of other NFL GMs are kicking themselves.
As a rookie for the Packers, Finley's athleticism and potential was apparent to everyone. But at 21 years old, Finley was the youngest player on the Packers and at times, appeared overwhelmed by the whole experience. His immaturity showed as he made some some ill-advised comments to the media, complaining about passes not being where he wanted them.
In the last two games of the 2008 season, he flashed some of that potential. He caught passes for 35 yards and 26-yard gains, and caught his first NFL career touchdown. Throughout it all, he worked as hard as anyone in practice and impressed coaches with his passion for the game.
As the 2009 training camp progressed, Finley opened eyes all around. Aaron Rodgers called him "unguardable." Coach Mike McCarthy said Finley's blocking skills had improved to the point where he can be used in any formation and for any role.
Packers GM Ted Thompson said, "Historically the tight end has been huge in the classic West Coast offenses and I think sometimes we've gotten away from that a little bit. The idea is to get back to using those guys. It's difficult for defensive backs. Your skill guys outside are busy trying to handle [Donald] Driver and [Greg] Jennings."
For his part, Finley would say, "I'm just excited and confident with what I'm about to get into. When I was at Texas, I used to look at Texas Tech's [passing scheme] and say, 'Man, I would love to have that offense.' And now, basically, it's come true. I'm just going to love it this year when the real games come."
Well, Finley's wish has been granted. As the season has progressed, Coach McCarthy has proven to be comfortable with using Finley inside, in the slot, and out wide. The matchup nightmares created for opposing defenses have resulted in a bigger role for Finley. After returning from missing three games with a sprained knee, Finley has had more balls thrown to him and caught more passes than any other Packer.
During the Packers' recent winning streak, one thing has stood out to me on offense. I believe we are seeing Finley become Aaron Rodgers' "go-to" guy. On key downs, Rodgers has looked for Finley with great success. Every great quarterback has one guy that is his security blanket. The guy he can always look for when things are breaking down. The guy he can always depend on to have a mismatch with a defender. Finley could be that guy.
"He's done a great job for us," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He really adds an extra dimension to our offense and opens things up for Greg and Donald and James. Having Jermichael out there just gives us another weapon. You have to kind of figure out how you're going to guard him."
What the Packers need to figure out now is that Finley should be the answer to their red-zone issues. As Leroy Butler recently said, "When you get to the 20-yard line, that's when No. 88 should get every ball. Jermichael Finley is a bad matchup for every defensive back and linebacker in the National Football League. You have to figure out ways to get him the ball."
Pretty high praise from a Packers legend about a kid who is only 22 years old and should still be a senior in college. It seems apparent to me that the Packers may have hit the proverbial home run with Jermichael Finley. He's an All-Pro in the making and for many years to come, after yet another big play by Jermichael Finley, we should all be saying:
TGIF - Thank God It's Finley.
You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports web sites: Jersey Al’s Blog, Packer Chatters, Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown, and, of course, Bleacher Report. Jersey Al is the Green Bay Packers Draft Correspondent for Drafttek.com.