As a new Collective Bargaining Agreement looms hopeful in the future, the return of Jermichael Finley to the Green Bay Packers offense has become an exciting topic of conversation. During the Week 5 game against the Washington Redskins, Finley suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, permanently sidelining him for the remainder of the 2010 season.
Now, after surgery and months of rehabilitation, the match-up nightmare tight end is set to return stronger than ever in 2011. (Even most of our readers agree he’ll be the “Comeback Player of the Year.”)
But some people have wondered: what is going to happen to Greg Jennings’ production with Finley back in the mix?
After not having a 100+ yard game until Week 6 (and after letting his frustrations be known publicly), Jennings seemed like he was being overlooked by offensive play-caller Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers in favor of Finley. Even the fans started wondering why, over the first four games, Jennings only had 12 receptions for 161 yards.
Meanwhile, in that span of time, Finley had 21 receptions for 301 yards.
You can see where the criticism stems from. You’ve got the best receiver on the team apparently playing second fiddle to the best tight end on the team. Not only did Finley gain, on average, 35 more yards per game, he also had two games with 100+ receiving yards. Jennings had none.
Do these numbers tell the whole story, though?
I, for one, was skeptical.
Receptions and yards are a nice indicator of how good a receiver is. After all, a player with high stats in these areas is someone who can get open and make plays for the offense. They are the primary measurement of elite receivers.
However, any good Fantasy Football team manager will know that catches and receiving yards aren’t the whole story.
In the world of Fantasy Football, you’ve got different types of receivers to choose from. Some are high risk, high reward players (boom or bust), while others are consistent producers who rarely put up the big numbers but can always be counted on.
In 2010, Roddy White and Calvin Johnson put up a similar number of fantasy points, and both ended up as Top 5 receivers. Johnson, though, was more of a boom or bust player. He had some high peaks, but he also had some low valleys and even a few goose eggs. White, on the other hand, was more of your consistent producer, always netting around the same number of points and just a couple times hitting an extreme low or high.
So what does this mean for us?
Well, it means that you can’t judge a player’s role on the offense simply by using yard totals and receptions as gauges. We have to find other statistical categories with which to measure these players.
One of those categories is “targets.”
Fantasy football is all about playing the odds, and when a receiver has a high number of targets, it means that they have a higher chance of producing. Pretty simple, really.
Similarly, it’s hard to quantify a receiver’s involvement in the offense without looking at the number of times they are thrown to. Because while Finley may have had more receptions and yards than Jennings in the first four games of 2010, they each had exactly the same number of targets (26).
Let’s break it down. Take a look at the table below:
You’ll notice that I separated the players by position. We have the wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs each grouped together. Then, at the bottom, I combined each group’s production to give you an idea of how the ball was distributed.
Finally, I highlighted two things for each game. First, the player(s) with the most targets for that week is in green. Second, the player(s) with the most receptions are highlighted in yellow. As you’ll notice, these two distinctions don’t always line up with the same player.
What I immediately observed – and perhaps what you did, too – is that each week saw a different player targeted the most. (The only slight exception is Jennings, who had the most targets twice, but who tied with Finley in Week 4.)
This observation brings to light something that has been missed in the discussion of Finley taking attention away from Jennings:
There are more than just those two players on the offense.
Sometimes we get tunnel vision when arguing a point or discussing an issue. In this case, we were so focused on Jennings’ lack of production and Finley’s big numbers that we failed to take into account the rest of the team. I mentioned above that both Jennings and Finley each had 26 targets over the first four games. But did you notice that Donald Driver also had 26 targets? He also had as many receptions (21) as Finley. Where has he been in the discussion?
The fact that Jennings publicly vented some frustration in the Redskins game most likely helped create this tunnel vision, as did Finley’s early departure from the active roster. All in the same week, no less!
But when you look at the whole picture, you’ll notice that, on average, the tight ends were targeted just 24.6% of the time over those first four games. Is it so hard to believe that one out of every four throws in a West Coast Offense goes towards a tight end?
This hardly appears as if McCarthy or even Rodgers were ignoring Greg Jennings.
Now, before we wrap this up, there are two more items that need to be considered in this discussion. The first of these is how (un)productive Jennings was with his targets.
Of the 26 attempts made by Rodgers to get him the ball, Jennings was only able to haul in 12 of those passes. That’s a success rate of 46.2%. Conversely, Finley caught 21 of his 26 targets, for a rate of 80.8%.
That’s a big difference, and it explains why, at face value, Finley seemed to be more involved in the offense.
I don’t have the game film or the statistics to see why Jennings missed so many of those passes (bad throws, drops, defended, etc.), but the fact remains that he was still targeted as many times as Finley was.
For our final consideration, we have to take into account the teams Green Bay faced in those four weeks. The prime example to use here is Week 3, when the Packers faced off with the Chicago Bears.
As is common knowledge, Lovie Smith and the Bears employ the Tampa 2 strategy in their defense. They try to take away the long passes and force the opposing offense to be patient, settling for short gains and longer drives. Not only does it limit the explosiveness of an offense, it also increases the chances of making costly mistakes, as they have to sustain their drive over a longer period.
For this week, it’s easy to see why Finley and Driver were such productive parts of the Packers’ offense, and why Jennings had one of his worst games of the year. Beating the Tampa 2 means utilizing shorter passes and attacking the seams, which is suited perfectly for tight ends, especially one of Finley’s caliber.
While Jennings did have six targets against the Bears, their defense played to take him out of the game.
Similarly, Green Bay faced the Buffalo Bills, who had the third ranked passing defense in the league last year. And when they played the Lions in Week 4, there were a lot more concerns with the offense than who they were throwing to.
With all of this information now out in the open, it’s become pretty clear that there’s not a lot of supporting evidence for those who think Jermichael Finley directed attention away from Greg Jennings.
Sure, the Week 1 throw from Rodgers to Finley in triple coverage made it seem like he was trying too hard to get him the ball. And yes, Finley is a beast of a player that any coach would want to see be involved heavily in his offense.
But when we look beyond the flashy stats to the ones with a little more meaning, and when we take into consideration some of the other factors and players involved, there’s not a direct causation between Jenning’s lack of production and Finley’s big numbers for those four games.
When Finley returns to the team, there’s a good chance Jennings and the other receivers won’t have the numbers they did last year. That, however, is simply the case of only having one ball to pass around to a whole lot of talent.
It’s not about playing favorites.——————Follow @ChadToporski