ST. LOUIS — The scene inside the locker room was different Saturday night.
After multiple games in 2012, frustration masked Jermichael Finley’s face. For 5 or 6 weeks, he was mostly a decoy. Whatever the reason – the drops, Randall Cobb’s emergence, an injury-shortened training camp, who’s open – chemistry between quarterback and tight end was broken, and the tight end was not pleased.
Not so this summer. Soon after the Green Bay Packers’ 19-7 win over the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, Aaron Rodgers approached Finley’s locker, patted him on the back and didn’t need to say anything.
“It’s about the chemistry with me and 12,” Finley said. “We’ve been doing that off the field, too. It’s starting off pretty good here.”
Through their three-drive cameo against the Rams, Rodgers looked for Finley again and again in what may have been a snapshot preview of what’s to come when the games count. The sixth-year tight end finished with four receptions for 78 yards on five Rodgers targets.
With injuries temporarily marring the wide receiver position, Finley has re-entered the picture in a big way. At St. Louis, he was a go-to threat again.
“Jermichael carried over what he has been doing in practice,” Rodgers said. “He’s big and athletic, and he’s playing very fast right now. He’s going to be a big weapon for us.”
The connection began immediately. The first play from scrimmage, Rodgers found Finley for 11 yards on a bootleg left. Two plays later, Finley was wide open in St. Louis’ zone coverage for 25 yards. The two connected again for 9 yards on the next drive. Rodgers misfired high to Finley off play action on a post.
And on the third drive, Finley took a short pop pass 33 yards.
The pass play wasn’t a designed call. Rather, both Rodgers and Finley recognized the blitzing linebacker and reacted. Finley knew to look for the ball immediately.
Chunks of yards after the catch were rare for Finley in 2012, when he averaged a career-low 10.9 yards per reception. Too often he stumbled, lumbered, and couldn’t capitalize on his NBA-like frame and athleticism. Ten pounds heavier this summer, he’s been working on his stride after the catch in camp.
On the 33-yarder Saturday, Finley turned upfield with more aggression.
“That’s one of my focuses,” Finley said. “To be the playmaker I want to be, I’ve got to catch the ball and then do something after it. So I’ve been working on that and it’s all coming into place.”
And it takes a trust from the quarterback.
Through Finley’s rash of September drops, the ball stopped sailing his way. Finley totaled five or fewer targets in nine games. Those “hot” routes faded. Cobb emerged. James Jones had only three drops the entire season. Jordy Nelson was a reliable threat along the boundary.
Now, with Nelson (knee) out and Cobb nursing a biceps injury, Finley is a priority again.
Whether this is all a short-term tease or a long-term sign is unknown.
“It’s not things you do on the field,” Finley said. “It’s things you talk about in the locker room. That’s what we’ve been doing more, and he’s starting to get the trust in me catching the ball.”
Each year is different. But Saturday night was an extension of what’s been transpiring at Ray Nitschke Field. During the no-huddle drill to end practice, Finley has been active. A proponent of more no-huddle in the past, he has finished multiple drives with touchdowns in traffic.
His drops are down, too. After letting one catchable ball slip through his hands at a practice last week, he quickly rebounded with a difficult, low, scooping grab over the middle.
Of course, it’s only August. Green Bay has seen these signs before.
Now, for Finley, it’s about sustaining what he has started.
“Catch the ball,” he said. “Catch the ball. Run your routes, diagnose the coverages right and run your route.”
Born: March 26, 1987
Hometown: Diboll, Texas
Drafted: 3rd round (91st overall) in 2008 by Green Bay
2012 stats: 61 catches, 667 yards, 2 TDs in 16 games (14 starts)
Career stats: 198 catches, 2,485 yards, 17 TDs in 64 games (43 starts)