12.10.2010

Finley's injury opening new doors


The loss of Jermichael Finley is something that still looms over this season. During training camp Aaron Rodgers was positively giddy when he spoke of Finley, and as preseason led to the regular season, you could see why. Linebackers couldn't keep up with the third year tight end while cornerbacks and safeties clung to his ankles for dear life as he continued down the field, and with his basketball background he could post up on anyone and come down with the ball.

This, of course, all ended in the Redskins game in week 5, and the impact was immediately felt in 2 consecutive losses. But since then Rodgers has rediscovered target Greg Jennings, as ESPN's Kevin Seifert writes, and his article raises a question: could the loss of Finley be a good thing?

It's not out of the question. There's even historical precedence for it in Green Bay. When Brett Favre was finding his way from 92-94, he leaned heavily on All-Pro WR Sterling Sharpe. In those 3 seasons Sharpe had a whopping 314 catches, or approximately 1/3 of Favre's completions. But he suffered a career ending neck injury at the end of the 94 season, leaving Favre without his safety valve.

Favre responded with 3 consecutive MVP seasons.

It is possible Favre would have had as much success with Sharpe in those years, but I don't think so. My theory has always been that Favre used Sharpe as a crutch in tough situations: if things go bad, go to Sterling. Once that crutch was gone, Favre stepped up his game. He began to spread the ball around more, and consequently saw his interceptions drop. Simply put, he was less predictable.

Rodgers was suffering from this same predictability early in the season. He began forcing the ball to Finley, and though they connected on some sensational plays, you can't help but wonder who was open on some of those passes into triple-coverage. His interceptions may reflect the Finley related problems as well. In Finley's 4 full games Rodgers threw 5 interceptions, then in the following 3 games--his readjustment period, if you will--he threw 4 more. He hasn't thrown a pick since.

So now that Jennings has reemerged as the top threat and Donald Driver is again healthy (as evidenced on this incredible catch and run), the two are once again the focus of the offense. But there are also less noticeable benefits to the Finley injury, and that's the added experience the younger players are in line for. Lesser receivers James Jones Jordy Nelson, and Brett Swain have benefited from his absence, but perhaps no one has benefited more than Andrew Quarless.

At 6'4" 250, Quarless is a guy who has the tools to be another Finley. Because he provides the same mismatch problems, the portion of the playbook which would've been otherwise lost due to a lack of the proper personnel remains open, meaning he's seen plenty of added playing time. He's had the growing pains expected of a raw rookie talent, but according to his QB and his coach, he's made some significant strides of late. This progress never would have come had Finley stayed healthy, and should Quarless realize his potential upon Finley's return next season, Rodgers won't be able to develop tunnel vision if he tries.

Ultimately, Jermichael Finley has been missed this season. There's no telling what impact he would've had in the OT loss to the Redskins had he not gone down on the second play of the game, and it's hard to imagine there ever being a 4th & Goal situation in the Falcons game with him in the lineup, let alone a QB sneak. But for the long term prospects of Rodgers' growth as a quarterback and the developing youth on the roster, his injury may have been the best thing that could have happened.

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