It has been two years since Jermichael Finley played his final game for the Green Bay Packers.
Yet, the enigmatic and often outspoken tight end’s void in the offense still can be felt.
Finley, then only 26 and in a contract year, suffered a career-ending neck injury on Oct. 20, 2013, after a midfield collision with Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson left him motionless on the field. He spent the next year working toward a comeback before announcing his retirement two weeks ago.
The Cleveland game marked not only Finley’s final NFL appearance but also the last time a Packers tight end eclipsed 70 receiving yards. Green Bay has masked his production with several layers of playmaking receivers, but its deficiencies at the position have become obvious this season in the offense’s slow start.
The Packers are 26th in the NFL in tight-end productivity (27 catches for 246 yards and two touchdowns) through the first seven games this season. Nearly all of that production has come from second-year tight end Richard Rodgers, who has played nearly 80 percent of the offensive snaps.
The offense has become reliant on Rodgers at tight end since veteran Andrew Quarless tore his medial collateral ligament against Kansas City on Sept. 28. Rodgers is second on the team with 23 catches and has dropped only one pass, but hasn’t been overly dynamic once the ball is in his hands.
His 4.87-second time in the 40-yard dash has surfaced in his inability to make defenders miss after the catch. He’s averaging just 8.9 yards per catch this season and hasn’t been the red-zone target everyone anticipated during training camp.
“Richard’s playing a lot of football,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s being asked to do a lot of different things, and I think that’s something that we have to take an honest look at from a coaching staff standpoint.”
Supplanting Finley has proven to be as problematic for the Packers as finding a replacement for safety Nick Collins, whose own career-ending neck injury in 2011 triggered a three-year rebuilding process for the secondary. Finally, general manager Ted Thompson invested a 2014 first-round pick in Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The offense thrived without Finley because it was one of the most receiver-rich teams in the NFL. The term “embarrassment of riches” was used ad nauseam to describe the receiving corps of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones before he left for Oakland in 2014.
The loss of Nelson, who could play inside or outside, to a season-ending knee injury has thrown a wrench into the entire offensive operation. The receivers’ inability to win one-on-one matchups has led to Rodgers getting more attention, but his plays tend to end quickly after the reception.
His struggles as a blocker also surfaced in Sunday’s 29-10 loss to Denver. Late in the game, Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware beat Rodgers to force a strip sack of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an eventual safety, effectively ending any hopes of a Packers’ comeback. He also contributed to several bad run plays.
It’s not like the Packers haven’t tried to improve their lot at tight end. They spent a 2014 third-round pick on Rodgers and a sixth last spring on UAB’s Kennard Backman, but tight end remains an afterthought in the offense.
It still hasn’t been enough to tempt Thompson to look outside the organization for help. The Packers brought in veteran Owen Daniels for a visit last year and two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham for a visit in July, but both left town without a contract. Gresham agreed to a one-year contract worth up to $2.75 million with Arizona the day after his workout in Green Bay.
An NFL source indicated the Packers didn’t inquire about former San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who was traded Monday along with a 2016 seventh-round pick to Denver for a pair of sixth-rounders. Davis, 31, remains one of the fastest tight ends in the NFL and could have opened things up for Green Bay's offense.
The trading deadline passed Tuesday without any fireworks, which isn’t necessarily a surprise in Green Bay. You’d have a better chance of chiseling through a bank vault with a toothpick than getting Thompson to part ways with a future draft choice for a veteran player.
It has happened once in 10 years. Thompson sent a 2008 sixth-round pick to the New York Giants for running back Ryan Grant. He also acquired safety Anthony Smith from Jacksonville for a conditional draft pick in October 2010, but didn’t have to give anything up after Smith played in only four games.
So the wait continues on Quarless, who’s eligible to be activated off temporary injured reserve for the Thanksgiving matchup with Chicago. A jack-of-all-trades veteran, Quarless hasn’t been the same blocker he was before blowing out his knee in 2011, but his knowledge of the Packers’ offense runs deep.
He, too, has struggled with yards after the catch, but drew the praise from Aaron Rodgers for his growth this offseason. A rough offseason both personally and professionally was a precursor to a quiet training camp and slow start to the regular season. The Packers feel the sixth-year tight end can make a difference once he returns.
“Quarless is definitely a core player for us,” McCarthy said after Quarless was designated to return from injured reserve last month. “Someone that definitely is in that category that you want to make sure you get them back and give them the time to get back. I view Andrew as a starter because we don’t have 11 starters on our offense and defense.”
What the Packers have to determine over the next month is whether Rodgers is a tight end best served in moderation. He has played more than 90 percent of the team's snaps since Quarless went down while his backups, Backman and Justin Perillo, have seen 20 offensive reps in four games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Perillo, a second-year tight end, leapfrogged Backman on the depth chart soon after he was promoted from the practice squad Oct. 14. He has two catches for 27 yards on eight routes. The Packers liked Backman’s athleticism enough to draft him, but he has played sparingly since making the final 53.
There’s also undrafted rookie Mitchell Henry, whom the Packers were exceedingly high on this summer before he broke a middle finger early in camp. They planned to sign him onto their practice squad before the Broncos claimed him off waivers. He returned two weeks ago after spending five weeks in Denver.
Like they did at safety, it’s possible the Packers finally invest an early draft pick on a tight end next year. For now, the Packers are counting on Richard Rodgers and a young nucleus to help lift the offense from its early funk.
Finley is gone and the Packers’ need for a marquee tight end remains.
“He’s been pretty much carrying the load, but we have two other young guys that have been given a little more opportunities,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “That’s something that we’ll address. As the weeks go on, those guys will have more opportunities and they have to make the most of them.”