Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers knows he has a unique threat in tight end Jermichael Finley (88).
During an interview last month, my conversation with Rodgers drifted into a bit of a sensitive topic: the extent to which his much-discussed propensity to hold the ball too long contributed to the 50 sacks he took last season. Within four sentences, we were talking about Finley.
"The first eight games we had 36 [sacks]," Rodgers said. "The last eight, we had 14. I look at it like this, and this is taking all of that other speculation stuff out of it. When Jermichael Finley was on the field, and healthy, especially in the last eight games, we were able to do a lot more things on offense. He opens up the field, and I think we opened it up a little more on offense. We were able to avoid taking those sacks, and the ball was coming out of my hand a lot quicker. And we were making plays a little more regularly."
Indeed, as we first touched on in January, Rodgers threw more passes to Finley over the final eight games last season than any other Packers receiver, tight end or running back. (The chart accompanying this post details the numbers.) Finley probably has gotten more preseason hype than any tight end in the NFL, and for good reason, but I'm still surprised by how much significance Rodgers places on a tight end in an offense that also includes receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.
During our conversation, Rodgers credited Finley with an enormous impact on the Packers' total offense. If he had suggested Finley has helped lower mortgage rates while also eliminating poverty, I probably wouldn't have blinked.
"He's a very confident guy," Rodgers said. "His confidence I think filters down to the rest of the team. He's an important part of our offense and allows us to do a lot of things. I think he's really improving his blocking, which will allow him to become an every-down player, which I think is important. That gives us the run/pass option every time he's on the field instead of being more pass-heavy. That's important.
"As far as his route-running goes, I think he's already very talented. But I think his understanding of the offense and making his own little tweaks to individual routes has improved."
As we noted in our Packers Camp Confidential, Rodgers has been pumping up Finley throughout the offseason. After realizing the impact he had on the second half of last season, Rodgers called him shortly after returning home from the Pro Bowl.
"I had a lot of fun with Vernon Davis and Jason Witten, two extremely talented tight ends," Rodgers said. "But I firmly believe Jermichael Finley is in their class. He is a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end. And that's what I told him. I said, 'You've got a lot of work in front of you, but you've got the talent and ability to be recognized as a Pro Bowl tight end every year.'"
For what it's worth, Finley led all NFL tight ends this preseason with 163 receiving yards. Despite limited playing time, his 12 receptions were tied for first among tight ends and his two touchdowns tied for fourth. And, oh, by the way, the Packers' offense finished the preseason at the top of the NFL rankings in yards per game (406) and points (30.8). Packers quarterbacks were sacked four times, tied for the third-best mark in the league.
If you listen to Rodgers, those individual and team statistics go hand in hand. Based on what I've seen and heard this summer, I don't doubt it.