From a purely unscientific standpoint, it seems like the Packers alternate between years where they’re relatively healthy and years where they cannot catch a break. I thought the 2009 season was the former – despite losing Al Harris and Aaron Kampman in the same game, the Packers had most of their top players at the end of the year. And if there was doubt the 2010 season is one of the bad years, injury-wise, there can’t be any longer.
The news out of Green Bay today is that Jermichael Finley’s knee surgery was more complicated than expected, and as a result, he could miss the rest of the year. Essentially, doctors found they were able to repair Finley’s torn meniscus, rather than removing it altogether. That’s much better for the tight end down the road, but it requires a longer rehab this year.
And that’s a huge blow to the team’s Super Bowl chances. However long Finley is out, his absence dramatically alters the Packers’ offense. You saw it in the first five weeks: Finley was Aaron Rodgers’ primary target, his first read on plenty of plays. His presence opened up the middle of the field, and his athletic ability in the red zone gave the Packers something they didn’t have otherwise. It’s exponentially more damaging to the Packers than Ryan Grant’s injury, and it will force them to change much of what they do on offense.
How do the Packers counter? Well, as much as Mike McCarthy doesn’t like it, they might have to run more. Right now, the Packers are getting beat by teams that run a Cover-2 scheme, and they’re going to see it at least three more times from the Bears and Vikings. Finley helped with that, but with him gone, it’s tough to get safeties out of the middle of the field unless you can run the ball effectively enough to force them toward the line of scrimmage. The Packers still have a deep group of wide receivers, but most of them were dropping passes last week, and Greg Jennings has all but disappeared with safeties over the top this year.
It remains to be seen whether this will cripple the Packers to the point they can’t go to the Super Bowl; they have high hopes for Andrew Quarless, and he might be able to assume some of Finley’s role – though it’s hard to imagine he could take on all of it. Finley is not Aaron Rodgers or Clay Matthews; both of those players are injured, but they’re more important to the Packers than Finley is, and it sounds like Rodgers will be able to go on Sunday against the Dolphins, while Matthews could be back for the Vikings on Oct. 24 (let’s hope so) or the Jets on Halloween.
But for McCarthy, who finally had the offense he’d been trying to build for five seasons, this is unquestionably a test. Can he adapt? Can he change his scheme to make up for Finley’s loss, and can he clean up enough of the mistakes and penalties on offense to account for the immense loss of talent the team has already suffered?
It’s a forgiving year in the NFC, and the NFL in general, so the Packers might be able to regroup and get where they want to go. Finley’s injury, though, is the most damaging in a long list of casualties, and it puts this team a step closer to crisis mode.