I love the tight end," says Packers coach Mike McCarthy. In his offense the position is more than a safety valve. It's a vital downfield weapon when the corners are smothering Green Bay's wideouts—and even when they're not. But the tight end was barely a footnote in McCarthy's playbook during last season's Super Bowl run because he was without emerging star Jermichael Finley, who suffered a season-ending torn meniscus in his right knee on the second play of a Week 5 loss at Washington. In four postseason victories, during which Green Bay averaged 30.3 points, Aaron Rodgers threw for 1,094 yards. Only 54 of those were to a tight end.
Now we'll find out how good the Pack attack can really be. Green Bay placed 15 players on injured reserve in 2010, but it was the loss of Finley, a 6'5" bundle of energy, that was most prominent for the offense. Focusing primarily on wideouts Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, Rodgers went 11--4 with Finley sidelined, completing 65.6% of his throws for 4,076 yards, 29 touchdowns and just eight interceptions to rise to the top of the football world. So it's safe to say the QB compensated—not that he was happy about it.
"He's a matchup nightmare," Rodgers said of Finley during training camp. "He's so big, so tough to cover, and he can open things up for us in the backfield and at receiver with all the attention he'll draw."
Now entering his fourth season out of Texas, Finley, 24, came to camp leaner—down about 10 pounds to 242—and faster, determined to be the downfield threat he'd shown flashes of becoming in 2009, his first year as a starter, when he had 55 catches and five touchdowns. As McCarthy integrates Finley back into the offense, teams will have to figure out how to cover a tight end with the chiseled, angular frame of a bigger Larry Fitzgerald. Finley will operate as a classic pass-catching tight end: running at the safeties, splitting the secondary, forcing defenses to deploy a good cover man. "I believe in attacking the middle of the field with the tight end," McCarthy says. "It's the fastest way to the end zone."
Opponents will likely shy away from using linebackers on Finley because of his quickness. Should they use a big safety to match up physically? Or a corner to handle the speed?
"You've got to put a corner on Jermichael," says Rodgers. "I figure they'll put their top corner on Greg [Jennings], and the Number 2 guy on Jermichael. When we've played the Lions, they played a high-low [safety deep, corner in coverage] on Greg, high-low on Jermichael. We could see that."
At one August practice Finley's uncanny pass-catching ability stood out. Over his head, off the ground, with one hand ... if Finley could get a fingertip on the ball, he caught it. And then he let the cover men know about it. Loudly. The star tight ends in the NFL—Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez—are quiet types. Finley's more of a diva receiver (though he backs up the yakking with excellent preparation). Two seasons ago he got into a gamelong verbal and physical jousting match with Detroit strong safety Louis Delmas that prompted commissioner Roger Goodell to send a letter to Finley, telling him to cool it. "We love that swagger," says Rodgers. "It's one of the things about him we really missed."
Teams trying to repeat as champions often have to deal with flagging motivation. Finley's return will help the Pack in that regard. A big part of him feels he didn't earn his Super Bowl ring, so he wants to be a cornerstone of a second championship team.
"We've got the deadliest offense in the league," Finley says, "and last year I had to watch it, not play on it. You play your whole life to get to the Super Bowl. I watched the Super Bowl from the sideline, incognito. It was surreal. I'm happy we won it, of course. But when you're not playing it's different—it was a bittersweet night. That's why this off-season I was so hungry. I never worked like this before. I made sure I was in the best shape of my life."
Last year Finley was on his way to the Pro Bowl—he had nine catches and 115 yards against the Bears two weeks before the injury. His replacements, Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree, were more blockers than receivers. Now Finley hopes to get the shot he missed out on in 2010: being a major weapon for a star quarterback on a Super Bowl contender.