Pete Dougherty column: Finley, Cobb have playmaking potential, but Packers will need Jennings in postseason

Dec. 13, 2011

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Who will Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers look to with his primary target, receiver Greg Jennings, unavailable for the remainder of the regular season? / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette


The Green Bay Packers suddenly are in a position similar to last year when they lost tight end Jermichael Finley to an injury.

Receiver Greg Jennings’ knee injury last Sunday against Oakland means they’re missing one of their two most important weapons in the passing game. For the second straight season, they’ve lost something that makes them special — with Jennings and Finley healthy through 13 games this year, the Packers have been the NFL’s top-scoring team.

Last season they remained one of the NFL’s better offenses even without one of their two primary playmakers. Jennings was good enough to make plays (76 catches,12 touchdowns) and occupy defenses, which made everyone else better. The Packers finished No. 10 in points, No 9 in yards and won the Super Bowl.

This year, with Jennings out probably for the final three games of the regular season but back for playoffs, we’ll get a sense for whether the reverse is true, that is, whether Finley can do what Jennings did in 2010.

It also bears noting that this year’s Packers appear better equipped to put up points despite missing one of their two most important receivers. For one, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has gone from one of the league’s top quarterbacks by late last season to its best. Second, the Packers have a potential playmaker they didn’t have last season in rookie Randall Cobb, who figures to take on a bigger role the final three games.

We don’t know whether this would be enough to win a Super Bowl with the way the Packers are configured in 2011. Assuming Jennings is back by the playoffs, as the Packers say, we won’t find out.

But it’s a point worth considering just in case Jennings’ return doesn’t go as well as projected. Unlike last season, the Packers’ offense this year might have to be the NFL’s best to win the championship. There have been times this season they’ve simply outscored their defensive shortcomings, which are noteworthy though not as bad as their No. 31 ranking in yards allowed suggests. By more telling statistical measures, they rank No. 15 in the NFL in scoring defense and No. 7 in opponent’s passer rating, down from Nos. 2 and 1, respectively, last season. They’re probably an average to slightly better NFL defense in 2011 after being one of the league’s best in 2010.

Through 13 games, Finley hasn’t been the playmaker many of us expected. Going into the season, he looked like a good bet to make the Pro Bowl even at what’s becoming a highly competitive position. He’s still been an impact player, but as much for the attention he draws from defenses as for the plays he’s made.

Finley has only 42 receptions this season, which ranks only No. 18 among tight ends in the NFL. It’s clear the Packers went into this season with a different plan than last year, when during training camp and preseason games Finley was the focal point of their passing game. After he sustained the season-ending knee injury at Washington in Week 5, Jennings took over the primary role and was the best offensive player other than Rodgers on a team that won the Super Bowl. Jennings’ elite play along with Finley’s deliberately paced comeback from knee surgery convinced coach Mike McCarthy to structure his 2011 offense with Jennings as the primary receiver and Finley the clear No. 2.

Here are the salient numbers: Jennings has been targeted on 101 passes and caught 67, to Finley’s 68 targets and 42 receptions. Jordy Nelson actually has more targets (69) and catches (51) than Finley, though Finley’s impact is greater because defenses game plan more for him.

Finley, 24, remains a difficult matchup because of his combination of size (6-4 1/2, 247 pounds), athletic ability and hands. The game plans the next three weeks figure to play off him in the passing game, more like the early 2010 game plans. This is Finley’s chance to show he can both occupy defenses and make some of the plays that help win games.

Cobb also warrants a close watch. McCarthy has been stingy with playing time for the second-round draft pick, who since the start of camp has flashed the kind of explosive ability to suggest he could become a difference maker in this league. The Packers haven’t needed him to play much of a role in the passing game, so they haven’t done much to accelerate his development.

Cobb (24 targets, 19 receptions) has been the clear-cut No. 6 in the receiving pecking order behind Jennings, Finley, Nelson, Donald Driver (45 and 31) and Jones (37 and 26). But as he showed even last week against Oakland, when in the second quarter he turned a short hitch into a 19-yard gain, Cobb is as explosive and shifty a runner after the catch as Jennings though he’s nowhere near as polished a receiver overall.

The Packers don’t want to find out whether Finley, Cobb, a still-ascending Nelson and dormant Jones could outscore defensive mistakes like the offense has so far this year with Jennings. Odds are they couldn’t, but maybe the next three weeks will suggest differently. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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