When I visited the Green Bay training camp last August, coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers expected the offense to make a quantum leap in 2010 with the emergence of Finley.
Both expected the University of Texas product to become a Pro Bowler and take his place among the NFL’s elite tight ends. Both knew the Green Bay offense would benefit.
“Eighty-eight is going to be a huge part of this offense if we’re going to have success,” said Rodgers of Finley (who wears jersey number 88) last summer.
And Finley was — for the four games he played. He was the only tight end in the NFL with a pair of 100-yard receiving games in September. Through four games, he had emerged as Rodgers’ go-to guy on third down with six receptions.
“The real game is won on third down and in the red zone,” said McCarthy back in August. “You need those big targets because it’s a tighter game. The quarterback becomes more accurate throwing to those bigger, athletic targets.”
But in the first quarter of the fifth game, Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury. He was on pace for an 84-catch season. The three remaining tight ends — Donald Lee, Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree — combined to catch only 33 more passes the rest of the way.
With Finley starting 10 games in 2009, the Packers were the NFL’s third most efficient offense on third downs, converting 47 percent of their chances. Green Bay expected to be even better in 2010 with 16 starts out of Finley.
Tight ends are the drive extenders. Peyton Manning had Dallas Clark, Troy Aikman had Jay Novacek and Steve Young had Brent Jones. When offensive chaos erupts on third downs, the quarterback just needs to look for the big guy in the middle of the field to save the down.
But the big guy wasn’t there this season for Rodgers — and the Packers struggled a bit more on third downs, sliding to eighth in the NFL with a 41 percent conversion rate.
The Packers could use Finley in the Super Bowl against the Steelers, who finished second in the NFL in third-down defense. But Green Bay overcame the loss of Finley all season to win an NFC championship. The Packers will have to do it one more time Sunday to claim the Lombardi Trophy.