Even knowing Jermichael Finley might not play again this season, the Green Bay Packers should carry him on their roster.
Finley’s availability for the season is far from certain. He had surgery this week to repair meniscus cartilage in his right knee, and the window for his return is wide — anywhere from eight to 14 weeks, according to a source familiar with Finley’s injury.
Eight to 10 weeks is best case and would require an especially aggressive rehabilitation with no hitches. But some orthopedists consider that hasty of a return potentially harmful to the player’s knee and career in the long term, factors Finley and the Packers’ medical staff will consider in their decision.
If they choose to go that way, which appears unlikely, an eight-week recovery would get Finley back on the field with four games left in the regular season. Ten weeks gets him back with two games left, and 12 takes him to the end of the regular season. All those possibilities would allow him to contribute sometime in the playoffs, assuming the Packers qualify.
If it takes 14 weeks, the chances aren’t so good. Finley wouldn’t be on the field until the week of the NFC championship and probably wouldn’t be a factor that week. With an extra week off before the Super Bowl, he might have time to get his conditioning and skills to where he could make a difference — and just as importantly, minimize the risk of getting hurt after the long layoff from contact. Maybe. Maybe not.
But if he doesn’t play, so what?
In the last 15 years, the Packers have carried players — injured or not — for longer without activating them on the game-day 45-man roster. Going back to 1996, they’ve had six players inactive for every game in a season: Marco Rivera in 1996, Joe Andruzzi in ’97, Bill Ferrario in 2001, Brennan Curtin in ’03 and Steve Morley and B.J. Sander in ’04.
And that’s just the full seasons. In ’96, defensive lineman Bob Kuberski was inactive for 14 of 16 games in the regular season and all three in the playoffs. Mike Wahle suited up only once in ’98, same for Donnell Washington and Chris White in ’05. Breno Giacomini was inactive the final 14 games of 2008 and suited up only once last year (playoffs included).
In Week 2 of 2000, Earl Dotson herniated a disc in his lower back, had surgery and remained on the roster the rest of the season even though he didn’t suit up again. Same in ’03 for Marcus Spriggs, a backup left tackle who didn’t suit up from Week 4 through two playoff games.
Another eight players since ’96 have been inactive for at least nine straight games, playoffs included. Among them was halfback Dorsey Levens, who injured his ankle in Week 2 of ’98, had surgery and didn’t return until Week 13.
So at least generally, there’s room for dead weight on a 53-man roster. The question is whether there’s room this year with the Packers’ long injury list.
The answer is yes, even with three players eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list starting next week.
The three are cornerback Al Harris, safety Atari Bigby and running back James Starks. Starting next week, the Packers have a three-week window in which each can begin practicing. Once the player practices, that starts another three-week window within which the Packers must decide whether to activate him, place him on injured reserve or waive him.
When any of them is activated, somebody has to be released to make room on the 53-man roster. Assuming all three end up on the roster — Harris and Bigby are virtual locks, Starks not as sure a thing — then three players on the team will have to go.
The Packers no doubt consider putting Finley on IR an option. But they can cut other players without hurting the franchise long term: rookie offensive lineman Nick McDonald, halfback Dimitri Nance (if Starks looks like the better player), defensive end Michael Montgomery, inside linebacker Maurice Simpkins (depending on Brandon Chillar’s health) and outside linebacker Robert Francois. That’s five possibilities. Rookie lineman Marshall Newhouse might be a sixth.
Not that the Packers want to get rid of anybody, because they can’t be sure, for instance, how McDonald will turn out. But it’s hard to see how it’s not worth carrying Finley over any of them, even if Finley ends up not playing. If that means giving other teams a shot at McDonald or maybe even Newhouse, so be it.
The loss is worth it for even the possibility of having a playmaker such as Finley for even part of the postseason.
Yes, getting to the playoffs will be much harder with Finley out for at least the next two months, but it’s still realistic. The Packers have a strong corps of receivers, and no doubt will need quarterback Aaron Rodgers to carry them more than he has so far. But the race in the NFC North is wide open.
It’s worth noting General Manager Ted Thompson could have helped his team by spending the third-round pick it would have taken to trade for halfback Marshawn Lynch. (Seattle’s in rebuilding mode, and it’s unlikely it would have given up a better third-rounder than the Packers to get him.)
Especially with Finley out, Lynch could have made a difference, maybe a big one. With him, the Packers might have been similar to 2007, when they played in the NFC championship game and were an overtime away from the Super Bowl. That team didn’t have Finley, either, but it had a highly productive halfback in Ryan Grant, plus the same top three receivers as today: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones.
With the roster as is, the Packers still have the talent to make the playoffs, provided outside linebacker Clay Matthews doesn’t miss too much time because of his hamstring injury.
But without a viable run game, the Packers will need Finley to do damage if they make the playoffs. So, carry him on the roster knowing he might not play. Even if it means losing McDonald or Francois to another team, so what?
E-mail Pete Dougherty at firstname.lastname@example.org.