Exclusive: Pam Oliver corrals Finley

Ahhhs and boos.

Those are the two distinct and opposite reactions the home crowd
rains down on the same missed opportunity. Popular Green Bay
Packers named Jennings, Jordy and James hear the former.

The latter may seem reserved solely for embattled tight end
Jermichael Finley when he does the same thing . . . drop the
rock.

Hostile home

I first noticed the hostility toward Finley during the 2012
season opener at my favorite place to cover a football game,
historic Lambeau Field. The Packers played host to the NFC
Championship Game runners-up, the San Francisco 49ers, and the
joint was hoppin’.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed a simple, routine
short-yardage pass to his intended target. Finley made the grab.
Then I heard it. It was unequivocal.

If an entire crowd can break out in insincere, sarcastic
applause, this one did. “Look, what do you know, he caught
the football he’s paid handsomely to catch,” was how
that reaction struck me. I cringed a little and grew intrigued at
the same time.

The disdain shown toward this fifth-year player was very clear
and specific. Packers fans typically don’t boo their own
players. They appreciate them. Finley seems the exception to the
rule.

The Friday before the game, we asked the Packers for some alone
time with Finley, 25, who smiled when he talked.

I looked back over my prior notes before writing this. Right
after he told us how he expected the Niners would defend him, there
was a mention about a new machine made by Nike that he had worked
with, one designed to improve his hand-eye coordination as a way to
address those drops.

In a more recent conversation I asked Finley if he could hear
what I could on the field.

“Do you hear the boos?” I asked.

“I’m fully aware of it, of the boos and the
critics,” he answered. “It’s hard to block out
70,000 people. It’s hard to say I wouldn’t hear
them.”

And Finley doesn’t separate himself from the reality of
the situation.

“I’m in a funk,” he admitted.

What happened to the player who tore it up in 2009, who brimmed
with bravado as he capped his breakout season by setting a team
playoff record with his 6-catch, 159-yard receiving game in the
Packers’ wild-card playoff loss to Arizona?

Well, he started dropping too many balls, the “easy” ones,
that’s what.

According to STATS INC., Finley has been targeted 46 times this
season and has dropped five passes. Last season he dropped 11
passes after being targeted 92 times.

Winning back “12”

My first time meeting with the physically formidable player
(6-foot-5, 247 pounds) was for a feature piece we did for FOX NFL
Sunday’s pregame show near the end of the 2011 season.

The angle for the story was how well Aaron Rodgers spread the
ball around in the Packers’ potent offense, which at the time
sliced and diced defenses as if they were cherry tomatoes.

From the get-go Finley seemed eager to explain himself. He had
to make something right.

He seemed desperate to prove then, as he does now, that
he’s more than his flaws, that he can once again display the
raw talent that helped him contribute so much to Green Bay’s
prolific offense before a knee injury cost him of most of the 2010
season.

He had to get back into No. 12’s good graces again. In a sign of
respect, “12” is what Finley calls Rodgers, the quarterback with
the power to deliver the ball to him, or not.

Not-so-much was the final result in Week 10’s home win
over Arizona. No. 88 caught one of the two balls that came his way
all day for a grand total of 6 yards.

James and Jermichael

Lately, Finley’s been talking about getting his
swagger back, his hands back. But Packers receiver James Jones, who
adores Finley and plays the role of big brother/mentor, is not
convinced.

In un-sugarcoated terms, Jones told me Finley’s swagger
and confidence have all but abandoned him right now. He must get
them back somehow. Jones told me about the letters of inspiration
he puts in Finley’s locker on occasion. Jones shot straight
when talking to and about Finley.

Tough love, baby.

“I tell him all the time when he first got here, he had so
much swag,” Jones said. “He was talking to guys on the field,
talking junk . . . (saying) ‘they need five people to guard me.’
You watch him out at practice now and he has none of that swag. You
can tell he’s thinking about the ball.”

Jones said Finley has been working to correct his problem with
drops.

“He’ll try two or three different pairs of gloves in
practice. On game day he’s using a couple of different kinds
of gloves,” Jones said. “He’s got some of the
best hands out here. (I tell him) stop thinking negative that
you’re going to drop it, forget what happened in the past and
just play.”

Jones may be having a career year, but he knows what a slump
feels like. He admitted to experiencing one of his own last season.
By his own estimate, Jones had five or six drops that he says could
have been touchdowns.

When I ask him if he had been booed like Finley, his close
friend he calls J-Mike, Jones’ response was quick.

“Oh, no,” Jones said. But he can relate to J-Mike
being the target of doubters.

“Everybody said, ‘James can’t catch,’ ”
Jones said of his 2011 slump. “I kind of have some built-in
motivation to prove people (wrong).”

Many of those directly involved in Finley’s football
life agree that elusive confidence factor is his greatest hurdle to
clear. Somewhere in there lurks the player who can once again
dominate a game.

Jerry Fontenot is Finley’s position coach. He told me the
only way to get past this is by working through it. Whether that
entails “taking baby steps” or “taking things off
the menu,” as Fontenot uniquely put it, the focus must be on
the positive things that Finley does well.

“My role is to give this kid the best opportunity to
succeed on the football field,” Fontenot said.

The coach complimented Finley on being a diligent worker,
one who is very hard on himself. He sees an enthusiastic player who
brings good energy to practice and to the tight ends’ meeting
room.

“Jermichael played extremely well up into the point that
he had his injury,” Fontenot said. “Since then it
hasn’t been quite the same. You just see a bit different
aggressiveness toward the ball that hasn’t been the same.

“It’s tough to see one of your guys grappling with a
sense of not being as confident as he’s capable of
being.”

Finley and Rodgers have been spending extra time together the
night before games, working to get on the same page. But like all
pass catchers, Finley suggested the best way to get in the groove
he craves is to get the ball early and more often.

“If you catch a ball in the first quarter then you
don’t see the ball until the third quarter going into the
fourth quarter, you don’t get a rhythm down,” Finley
said. “It’s hard to snap out of that funk.”

One thing that stands out to me is Finley has mad fight in him
and won’t rest until No. 12 and No. 88 are simpatico.

Boos may cascade around him, but until the internal unrest
settles and the sure-handed Jermichael returns, there’s
nothing to suggest Finley won’t keep getting jeered. How will
he handle that?

“It’s something I’ve got to wipe off and keep
moving,” he conceded. “I’ve got to keep
grinding.”