Here's a tip for how to befuddle yourselves, dear readers: Watch a YouTube video, like this one, of Jermichael Finley just destroying defenses in 2009. The video features what I think are his two greatest games to date. One is, of course, his six-catch 159-yard devastation of the Arizona Cardinals in the '09 wild-card playoffs. The other is a Monday Night game against Baltimore, memorable chiefly for nearly setting the all-time record for combined penalty yardage, but amazing because Finley did pretty much everything it's possible for a receiving tight end to do. He caught a touchdown on one of his patented fade routes over a comparatively tiny safety. He made tough catches in traffic. He made big plays to get the Packers into the red zone, and he cashed them in with another terrific touchdown in which he crashed over the top of a Raven to get in.*
Finley has arguably never played back to the level that he reached late in the 2009 season. After missing most of 2010 with an injury and watching the Packers go to an offense that featured Greg Jennings in his absence, Finley had better statistical years in 2011 and 2012 than in 2009, but a lot had changed. He was no longer the focus of the offense. His great hands deserted him as he dropped far too many passes, and was charged with even more-including on passes that only Larry Fitzgerald could have caught-by an angry fan base. Instead of getting a huge contract extension, as seemed almost certain after the Cardinals lost, Finley got a two-year prove-it contract. Now, the debate is whether the Packers should cut him after just one.
For my part, I think the Packers should hang onto Finley for at least another year. He's still ridiculously talented, relatively young and will soften the expected blow of losing Jennings in free agency. And another year to gel with new tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot (Ben McAdoo is now the QB coach) can only help Finley's cause. But it's also fair to acknowledge that keeping Finley, or even extending his contract, would be just another example of the Packers going after players who are simply not physical.
A lot of ink has been spilled this offseason over how the Packers were physically beaten last year in their four games against teams made up of tough sons of guns: San Francisco (twice), Seattle and New York. Mike McCarthy's teams have not been tough, grind-it-out, hard-nosed teams; they've focused on offense, on the big plays in the passing game, and on turnovers on defense instead of physically beating other teams up. Dom Capers' scheme is trouble for opposing coaches, but his players--with the exception of Clay Matthews, who is a world unto himself--generally do not go forth and smack people in the mouth. Maybe that will change next year when Desmond Bishop and Nick Perry return, but it's not enough.
One of the biggest questions this offseason is whether the Packers will look to get bigger, tougher and more physical (read: more willing and able to knock the other guy into next week). The receiving corps has played soft for years, in my opinion. I've never liked the way Jennings or Jordy Nelson regularly plead for flags after slight bumps downfield. Jennings and Randall Cobb are small, fast receivers, not big bruisers; the Packers don't have that huge, strong, knock-people-around Anquan Boldin-type that some teams do. Given its success, the receiving corps is an odd place to nit-pick, but it includes a 247-pound tight end who doesn't like to block and is easy to knock off routes and take out of his game (think of Jason Pierre-Paul chipping on him in the 2011 playoff loss). Finley could still mature in that area, but keeping him wouldn't exactly put the Niners on notice that the Packers are coming for their heads next year.
The Packers can't turn an entire organizational philosophy around in one year. They can't magically grow their personnel one inch across the board or fire everyone that's not a Justin Smith-style mauler and start over. They can, however, draft to pick up more physical players; have the coaches emphasize what they can over the offseason; and maybe, just maybe, pick up a few free agents that could help. Yeah, I know there's a snowball's chance in hell of the Packers filling their biggest need (of an intimidator-style safety) with someone like San Fran's Dashon Goldson, especially when Matthews needs a huge new contract. The free-agent spree last year was a bust on all fronts, but it wouldn't hurt too much to try again with a Chris Canty or a Desmond Bryant on the D-line.
Bottom line: The Packers are 21-5 within the division over the last four years, including two playoff wins over division rivals. They have mastered the division. They'll most likely be in the playoffs next year. But the NFC is no place for teams who shrink from a rough-and-tough battle. Look at the NFC West, which sent two teams to the playoffs last year, and whose worst team--the 5-11 Cardinals--had the league's 12th-ranked defense. Look at the Giants and the Seahawks and the Niners, Green Bay's biggest conference rivals from now until the next time they beat them. The dominating defense and punishing run game of the 2010 playoffs is starting to look uncomfortably like the exception instead of the rule around here. If the Packers don't bear down and become more willing to dish out punishment instead of taking it, next year they'll probably just be looking at another early exit.
*There's plenty of room for disagreement--his three-touchdown destruction of the Bears in early 2011 has to be in the discussion, as does his 87-yard performance against the Giants later that year that included a beautiful catch-and-run to jumpstart the Packers' winning field-goal drive. But neither of those felt as dominant to me as the Ravens game. Finley was by far the Packers' biggest playmaker that night.