GREEN BAY, Wis. — No more discussions about chemistry issues. No more proclamations about being an elite tight end. No more verbal takedowns of respected NFL veterans. At least not right now.
Jermichael Finley has apparently learned his lesson. After years of being the Green Bay Packers’ most outspoken player, the 26-year-old tight end is now choosing a reserved approach over blunt honesty.
Speaking with the media on Wednesday for the first time since training camp began, Finley had a series of go-to responses ready. “Doing it the right way,” “just playing football” and “everything will take care of itself” were a few of his favorites.
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“When I’m out on the field, I talk when I’m supposed to talk,” Finley said. “Here, I’m just doing the right things, doing what I’m supposed to do and doing it the right way.”
Finley smiled as he rolled through his answers. He likely felt awkward behaving this way. Based on his first five NFL seasons, this isn’t his natural personality.
“He’s not in the media every day, that’s a good thing,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Finley. “That was a joke.”
A joke, perhaps, but one that McCarthy is thrilled to laugh about now.
In recent years, Finley’s antics have forced McCarthy to deal with issues that any head coach would prefer to avoid. No coach wants to find out that his starting tight end told reporters that chemistry with star quarterback Aaron Rodgers was “not good enough at all” and that it “takes two people” to correct it. Those were two of Finley’s October 2012 comments. Four months earlier, Finley reflected on the 2011 season by saying “I couldn’t get the chemistry with the QB.”
Despite that supposed lack of chemistry, Finley caught more passes last season (61) than any tight end in Packers history. But with the physical tools that Finley has, it seems he’s capable of even more.
“If I do what I’m supposed to do, everything else will take care of itself,” Finley said Wednesday.
Finley claims this isn’t a concerted effort on his part. He’d like fans, reporters and even his own teammates to believe it’s just a natural next step in his professional progression.
“It just happened,” Finley said. “I’m not trying to do it. It’s not something that’s on my mind everyday. Just getting better every day, man. Just doing what I’m supposed to do. Doing it the right way.”
Not everyone would define ‘doing it the right way’ as doing what Finley is choosing to do currently. There are plenty of professional athletes — and even team leaders — who are candid. But for Finley, this is the way the Packers would prefer.
This new, quieter version of Finley could be good for him, too. He’s going into a contract year and is going to generate more interest next offseason — from Green Bay or any other team — if his reputation changes.
“That’s what we do for a living; we play football,” Finley said. “If you play football, everything else will take care of itself. That’s my goal. I know I can play football. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Before Finley inked a two-year, $14 million extension in February 2012, he admitted that he put too much pressure on himself. That was certainly a healthy payday for a young player, but a better 2011 season would have brought about a larger, more long-term financial commitment for him.
Now that Finley’s once again playing for a new deal, he doesn’t want to do it the same way he did last time.
“I believe everybody that plays this game puts pressure on themselves at some point,” Finley said. “Yeah, I did (put pressure on myself in 2011), but now I’m just playing football. It’s not rocket science at all.”
Finley’s right. It’s not very complicated. If he performs well, the Packers are a much better team.
“Feeling good,” Finley said. “Speed, strength, I feel like I’m getting off the ground right now.”
Finley admitted — after several attempts to get the answer from him — that he added about 10 pounds since last season. Finley, who splits out wide as a receiver nearly as often as he’s set as a traditional tight end, isn’t worried that the extra weight will result in decreased burst.
“I’m feeling great and moving well right now,” Finley said. “If I do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll be good.”
Aside from McCarthy’s “joke” about Finley not being in the media as often, there are other reasons he’s excited. McCarthy said in January that he “noticed a change” in Finley late last season. In June’s minicamp, McCarthy again praised Finley’s recent positive developments.
With training camp now almost a week in, McCarthy is still impressed with Finley.
“Jermichael Finley loves football,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “He pours a lot into it. His offseason training outside the building is top-notch as far as the time he spends in Arizona and over there in Minneapolis. He’s stronger, he’s back to the Jermichael Finley of (2009). He’s where he needs to be. He’s in a very good place. I think he’s having a heck of a camp.”
The only significant on-field question with Finley at times in his career has been drops. He had the second-worst drop rate in the NFL in 2011, according to data from ProFootballFocus.com. That issue stuck with Finley early in the 2012 season, but over the final six games, he caught everything within reach.
“I think I can be much better,” Finley said, in what may have been his most off-the-cuff remark.
The bigger question with Finley has often been how he’ll handle the spotlight off the field. Will he choose to use it to say that the Chicago Bears aren’t “losing too much if (Brian Urlacher) is out” and that he’d have Jimmy Graham-esque statistics if he got “the ball 20 time a game” like the New Orleans Saints’ star tight end?
In the past, that is how Finley reacted. Well, not anymore.
“Play football,” Finley said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”