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.”