Midway through practice one day earlier this week, Jermichael Finley found himself wide open across the middle. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers delivered the ball to him in stride and, as has happened before, the Green Bay Packers tight end dropped it.
The ball fell to the turf not far from the Ray Nitschke Field stands, and the collective same-ol’-Finley groan from the fans could be heard clear across the field.
But this is not the same ol’ Finley.
A few plays later, Finley found himself wide open again, this time to Rodgers’ right. Having gotten himself so open that there wasn’t a defender within 10 yards of him, Finley caught the ball and took off upfield, put a stiffarm on one would-be tackler and finished off a 25-yard gain. Two plays after that, he was open yet again, making a nifty sliding catch across the middle to pick up a first down.
And when the first-string offense took on the first-string defense in a now-rare competitive 11-on-11 no-huddle period to end the practice, Rodgers’ first two completions – an 18-yarder and a 12-yarder on back-to-back plays – went to Finley, who again was wide open.
The moral of the story? Finley may still drop an occasional pass or two this season. But the fact that he was so open on so many plays – against both scout-team defenders and would-be starters – was striking. And it wasn’t because coach Mike McCarthy was drawing up ingenious, exotic plays to get him the ball.
Rather, the sixth-year tight end is seeing a different game this summer, and it could mean big things for him and his quarterback when the games start to count, starting with the regular-season opener at San Francisco on Sept. 8.
Unprompted during his press briefing at his locker after that practice, Rodgers singled out Finley – in an answer to an unrelated question – as having “an excellent camp.” It was at least the third time he’s spoken publicly about his tight end. Then, Rodgers explained why.
“It’s fun to watch him make some of the plays that he wasn’t making three or four years ago as far as being able to read a defense quickly and diagnosis it and get into his route,” Rodgers said.
Told of Rodgers’ comment, Finley began nodding in the affirmative before the full quote had even been read to him. It was as if he couldn’t wait to agree.
For all the talk over the past few years about the now 26-year-old Finley needing to mature, the focus always seemed to be on the need for off-the-field growing up. Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t. But based on early returns this summer, he’s definitely maturing in his approach to the game, and that’s what has Rodgers so excited.
“It’s not that (I’m older),” Finley explained. “I’m watching film more, and when I’m taking reps off I’m looking at how the defense is playing the tight end, how the linebackers are playing, and just getting off on the snap count. The key is listening to the snap count and getting off and running with my head up. That’s what I’m doing better this year.”
Although Finley acknowledged that something simple like keeping one’s head up to improve vision of the entire field seems obvious, he said he didn’t always do it before and it’s been as if a light bulb went on when he made it a priority.
“(I’m) running with my head up, realizing what the D is trying to do – not only to the actual offense, but how they’re trying to interrupt my route,” Finley said. “I try to read the defenses better and make the best choice.”
The 6-foot-5, 247-pound Finley was inconsistent at the beginning of last season, dropping seven passes in the first eight games. But he finished strong and set a team single-season reception record for tight ends with 61, and he didn’t drop a single pass over the final six games (including playoffs). Not coincidentally, Finley’s relationship with Rodgers was improving during that time, as the pair began spending the night before each game talking about the game plan, how he should run his routes and life in general.
The connection seemed to make a big difference, as Finley caught 26 passes in the final five regular-season games and also had a breakthrough day in Detroit on Nov. 18, when his three receptions included a touchdown and a critical 40-yard catch-and-run to set up the game-winning score.
Finley said it was during that time that he recognized how much more he could grow as a player with improved preparation. With so much God-given athletic talent, he admitted that he might not have always appreciated how the mental part of the game could bring out even more of his physical talent.
“That’s what I did, I feel like,” Finley said of relying solely on his natural ability. “This is where I want to take this second half of my career. I feel like I have a ton of years left, and this last half of my career I want to take it to another level. You do it the right way and see where it takes you. I used to just sort of let my athletic ability take over. But everyone has talent. It’s about doing it right.
“All guys that move forward as they get older, you think about what you should have done two years ago. But you can’t get those years back. I’m just trying to move forward and just do things right and see how the outcome is. If I do everything right, my athletic ability will take care of the rest. And we’ll see where it takes me.”
As for his rapport with Rodgers, Finley says he and his quarterback are in a great place. They’re communicating more, and while their night-before-the-game hotel visits haven’t started yet, those will be “on top” of the increased time they’re spending with each other at Lambeau Field during the week.
“We’re on board,” Finley said. “Both of us are competitive as all get out, so sometimes that takes over. But I feel like we’re in a great position right now. I mean, I feel great about it – the best I’ve ever felt with him in my career. I feel awesome. He’s putting it in, and I’m putting it in.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.