Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley (88) is brought down by Denver Broncos free safety Rahim Moore (26) and defensive end Jason Hunter (52) during the first quarter. The Green Bay Packers host the Denver Broncos Sunday, October, 2, 2011, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Some NFL players are good enough to be worth some headaches. Others aren’t, no matter how talented they might be.
So where does Jermichael Finley fall?
The fourth-year tight end is one of the Green Bay Packers’ best offensive players, a guy who makes plays and forces defenses to account for him. He also speaks his mind publicly when he wants the ball, like he did last week after the Packers scored 49 points in a blowout win over Denver, and will be a free agent after this season.
Some longtime Packers observers wonder whether Finley will become a locker-room cancer once he signs for big guaranteed money, perhaps in the range of $20 million, as part of a long-term deal. They wonder if the Packers should trade Finley now, while they can get something for him, rather than risk the huge investment in a contract extension this year.
The stance here is, the Packers should go ahead and do a new deal. Difference-makers are too hard to find. His behavior would have to be awfully bad not to hold on to him.
That isn’t to say some gifted players aren’t worth the trouble. But this is about winning games, and when it comes to extending the contract of a big personality like Finley, the main issues are: How much has he disrupted the locker room, and how much more will he after he gets paid?
As to the first, Finley’s demand-the-ball comments, like the tone-deaf remarks after the blowout win over Denver, go over badly in public. But if they cause a few players to roll their eyes or shake their heads, which no doubt they do, is there reason to think they’re actually disruptive? And though there’s always cause for concern that such talk will only escalate with a new and expensive deal, Finley has redeeming qualities to suggest he’s worth the risk.
For context, NFL history is full of examples of players on both sides of the ledger — those who were so outrageous or divisive that they weren’t worth the trouble no matter their gifts, and those who pushed the envelope but were worth keeping around.
The all-time NFL malcontent was Joe Don Looney, a running back who was a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Colts in 1964. He was big (6-foot-1 and 230 pounds), powerful, fast. But he also was undisciplined and insubordinate. The most famous of the litany of Looney stories was when Detroit coach Harry Gilmer told him to shuttle in a play, and Looney refused, saying, “If you want a messenger, call Western Union.” Looney rushed for only 724 yards while playing for four teams in five years.
But another even more outrageous player, defensive end Charles Haley, managed a long career. Haley, who was diagnosed after his playing career with bipolar disorder, was a main character in the book “Boys will be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys,” by Jeff Pearlman, for habitually performing lewd acts and gestures while naked in the locker room.
You can only imagine how uncomfortable Haley must have made most of his teammates and coaches, and you have to think he would have received psychological help early in his NFL career if he entered the league today. But despite his unpredictable and scary behavior, he had a 13-year career with the dominant franchises of his era, San Francisco and Dallas, because he was an outstanding pass rusher (100½ career sacks).
Two of the best-known locker-room problems of more recent vintage were Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. They are among the most gifted receivers in NFL history and likely Pro Football Hall of Famers who straddled the line with their moody and petulant behavior. When they were at their peaks, they were worth the trouble, but when they weren’t, they weren’t.
Finley, in the meantime, has shown in 3¼ seasons in the league he’ll speak his mind when he’s unhappy, and with his affinity for Twitter, there’s always the chance for an impolitic, heat-of-the-moment tweet.
In his unproductive rookie year, he made news after a Packers loss to Tennessee when he criticized quarterback Aaron Rodgers for throwing a fourth-and-1 pass behind him and admonished the coaching staff for not having figured out how to use him. He isn’t shy about telling anyone and everyone how good he is and the high expectations he has for himself, and he joined in with linebacker Nick Barnett in the Twitter feud in the Super Bowl photo flap last winter.
Finley’s comments last week about needing to get the ball more were especially off key because they came after the Packers had scored 49 points. But the issue isn’t how it plays in public, but how it plays in the locker room.
And while it’s not a good way to make friends with your teammates, the reality is, NFL locker rooms are full of distinctly different personalities, and the better players get more leeway. This is, after all, about winning.
Ask around the organization, and Finley has the reputation of a hard worker who loves football and wants to be great. And though Finley is outspoken, he doesn’t appear to be moody. So while there’s more risk paying him than, say, a Greg Jennings, there are important factors that bode well.
“(Finley) is by no means a disruptive force, if that’s what people are implying,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “He’s not that. If you ever had a chance to see him operate in meetings, walk-throughs, practice, it’s extremely important to him. It’s extremely important to him to do it right, he’s got a lot of pride. He has an exceptional work ethic. He didn’t have that when he first got here.”
The Packers also have a locker room to cope with a loose cannon or two. They have strong veteran leaders, beginning with Rodgers and Charles Woodson but also including, among others, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, and receivers Donald Driver and Jennings.
Most locker-room issues are handled in private, but Rodgers has shown he’ll publicly admonish Finley, as he did as recently as two weeks ago, when he implored Finley to tighten up on assignments despite a three-touchdown performance against Chicago.
“(The players) are going to take care of that locker room and make sure everybody fits,” McCarthy said. “You see it all the time, when issues arise the locker room usually handles it. I have to manage a lot less this year than in my prior years. My first couple years, we didn’t have that. We didn’t have leadership like we have now in the locker room, it didn’t exist.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.