GREEN BAY, Wis. — Any method of gauging the difference between the Green Bay Packers’ tight end production this year and last year starts with statistics.
Do it that way, and mathematically there’s practically no difference.
But give it the eyeball test and it sure looks as if the Packers have become far more focused on getting the ball to their wide receivers, even with Greg Jennings out for five games and Jordy Nelson one because of injury.
If you were to bet on quarterback Aaron Rodgers choosing between an open tight end and an open wide receiver, you’d bet on the receiver getting the ball 90 percent of the time. And based on some of their production, you can’t blame him.
“You have multiple receivers making plays every game, consistently,” starting tight end Jermichael Finley acknowledged. “These guys are on fire. It’s easy for them to catch it and do something with it.”
Yet there have games in which the receivers haven’t gotten open, and neither Finley nor fellow tight ends D.J. Williams and Tom Crabtree have seen a shift in emphasis their way. There isn’t a game you can point to in which coach Mike McCarthy aimed to beat someone with his tight ends.
“I don’t think there’s a decision to do that,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “It’s just the way it’s worked out. These things ebb and flow. If they’re going to take that area away, we have to go other ways.”
The numbers say not much has changed since last year.
After eight games this year, the tight ends have caught 37 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns. Through eight games last year, they caught 34 for 425 yards and five touchdowns.
Yet the perception is the Packers aren’t really getting as much out of their tight ends as they have in the past and that Finley has underachieved during the team’s 5-3 start. What many recall first is that the group has combined for eight of the team’s 21 drops, including six by Finley and two by Williams.
Through the halfway mark, Finley has two fewer catches, 113 fewer yards and four fewer touchdowns than this time a year ago. He has two fewer big gains and two more drops.
But he also has played just 65 percent of the snaps because of a shoulder injury that limited him against Indianapolis and Houston. Last year, he was playing about 83 percent of the snaps at this time.
“His injury set him back a little bit, but he’s played through it,” Clements said. “He’s a force to be reckoned with and he’s going to get his opportunities.”
In games in which the receivers struggled and the tight ends could have been a big help, including the 24-15 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday, they either weren’t targeted much or just weren’t a factor. Against the Jaguars, they caught just two of nine passes thrown their way.
Two things stand out when looking at Finley and the others’ season: Their chemistry with Rodgers isn’t good and their role in the offense has changed.
Finley admits he has to catch the ball when Rodgers throws it to him, but he’d also like Rodgers to give him more chances to redeem himself when he doesn’t. Nelson has five drops this season and Randall Cobb has four, yet Rodgers seems comfortable throwing to them anytime.
It’s odd that the chemistry is bad because the two were completely on point in 2009 until Finley was lost for the year with a knee injury. But things have changed to where Rodgers may anticipate more coverage over Finley and look elsewhere first.
“We’re not targeted like we used to,” Finley said. “Some things you can do something about, that’s when the ball does come to you, catch it. But some things are out of your hands when ‘Rodg’ looks at you and doesn’t throw it. There’s nothing you can do.
“As tight ends, I can speak for all of us, I know ‘12’ is doing his best, but you touch it every once in awhile and it’s a ball 100 mph, it’s hard to do something with it. But at the end of the day once you get it, you have to do something with it.”
Williams has struggled to get Rodgers’ attention also. After a terrific training camp when Rodgers threw to him a lot, he has played about 18 percent of the snaps and hasn’t done much when the ball is thrown to him.
Lately, he’s been playing a lot of fullback to help account for starter John Kuhn’s absence because of a hamstring pull.
“That’s the real tough part,” said Williams, who has four catches for 37 yards. “I think you see it really helps players out, that chance to get into a rhythm. That comes with a mind-set of knowing you’re going to be on the field for the game.
“But it comes with being patient, waiting to get your turn. It’s very difficult with spot opportunities, but that’s just the way it is.”
Another factor is that McCarthy is not spreading Finley around the formation like he has in the past. Finley is far more likely to be in a traditional tight end position than to be lined up wide of the formation or in the slot.
After eight games last year, he was either wide or in the slot 55 percent of the time. This year, he has been wide or in the slot 30 percent of the time.
It is far easier for teams to double-cover or chip him when he lines up at the traditional tight end spot than it is if he’s split wide or in the slot. He is not able to tell if he’s getting one-on-one coverage before the play even starts as he did in the past.
The biggest reason for the shift away from Finley split wide appears to be the no-huddle offense. McCarthy uses three wide receivers and a tight end and usually lines up the receivers in the same spots and the tight end on the line of scrimmage.
Finley insists he can offer more in those situations but isn’t going to press the issue.
“It’s out of my hands,” Finley said. “I know people see me dropping passes and whatnot, but it’s like that. If I was getting off and comfortable, you’d be seeing a hell of a different 88 out there.
“Obviously, you see, they’re (the opposition) thinking about the middle of the field. If you get the tight end going in this offense, it’s hard to stop him.”
Asked whether he could sit down with Rodgers and express such things in a private setting, Finley it’s something he’s working on. He said nothing is going to be settled overnight and nothing needs to if the Packers keep winning.
“It’s easier said than done,” Finley said. “It’s a work in progress. I have to keep my game right and detailing it. If I’m getting double teams, I have to do my job and move from there. My team wins, that’s a positive.”