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Finley's future status uncertain after neck injury

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 22, 2013

GREEN BAY—The future of Jermichael Finley on the football field remains unknown.

There were no timetables set Monday. Timetables took a backseat.

But a source did confirm that the Green Bay Packers tight end suffered a bruised spinal cord in his neck against the Cleveland Browns. He is expected to seek more medical opinions on the injury and take his time through the evaluation process.

Late Monday, Finley tweeted that he's out of the intensive care unit and had full feeling in his arms and legs. Calling this a “significant” injury, coach Mike McCarthy added that the 26-year-old Finley is “very upbeat, very positive.” McCarthy said Finley would do his “due diligence.”

“At the end of the day,” McCarthy said, “we're going to do what's in the best interest of Jermichael Finley.”

Several players in Green Bay have seen their careers end due to neck injuries. After suffering neck trauma, linebacker Jeremy Thompson, wide receiver Terrence Murphy and safety Gary Berry all discovered they had spinal stenosis—a narrowing of the spinal column—and never played again. Safety Nick Collins, guard Tony Palmer, tight end Mark Chmura and linebacker Johnny Holland all suffered herniated discs that forced them to leave the game.

From here, Finley is expected to seek more medical attention. The key is to find out why the spinal cord is compressed. ESPN was first to report the news of the bruise.

Football is likely the last thing on Finley's mind. McCarthy and the Packers will have no choice but to forge ahead. For an unknown time, they'll be without their play-making, 6-foot-5, 247-pound tight end. The staff must again figure out how to move the ball without a player who rarely ever came off the field.

Last week, Green Bay lost Randall Cobb. This week, Finley.

For now, both injuries feed a building trend in Green Bay—winning ugly.

Overall, the entertainment value will take a hit. Those prices on StubHub may drop a tick as 400-yard passing days give way to 100-yard rushing days. In Finley, the Packers lose one of the most versatile tight ends in the game. They'll need their three healthy tight ends—Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner—to excel in specific roles and the offensive line to dominate.

Before Sunday's 31-13 win over Cleveland, McCarthy said he told the team it all starts up front, that “we're going to lean on our big dogs.”

Added the coach, “That will definitely be part of our focus as we go forward.”

Fine by left guard Josh Sitton and the linemen. After expressing his relief that Finley is moving again, the conversation turned to football Monday.

The team is ready to run.

“I think the culture of this team a little bit has changed with the offensive line and defensive line play,” Sitton said. “We've been playing pretty well, so we know that the onus is more on us more than ever right now, and we take pride in that. The defensive line has done a great job of taking over the defense.

“We talk about it as a line, and we take pride in going out there and being able to win games in a different fashion than we have before.”

Not many receivers in the game make the play Finley did in the first quarter Sunday. He spun off one defender and bulled through two more for a 10-yard touchdown. This season, Finley said he “built a wall.” He vows he had—once and for all—eliminated hesitancy, ignored criticism. On the field, it showed.

Through six injury-shortened games, Finley caught 34 passes for 300 yards with three touchdowns.

Expect more Eddie Lacy, more of using the run first. Again, Lacy was a bruising, if not blistering presence Sunday. Meanwhile, the five players up front have been hellbent on inherently changing how the public interprets the team.

A sidelined Finley only encourages McCarthy to lean on the run more. At this point last year, Green Bay was running the ball 39 percent of the time. That figure now is an increasing 43 percent. Green Bay is averaging 134.7 rushing yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL. To be sure, the offensive linemen love plowing forward, instead of backpedaling in pass protection.

With each injury, they're playing with more attitude. Adversity now reaches a new level.

In college, when Colorado was getting blasted by 20, 30 points a game, left tackle David Bakhtiari had a saying for times like these.

Earmuffs, kids.

“You can't replace Jermichael Finley,” Bakhtiari said. “We have guys who can go in and have their own little flavor. It's just tough. We're going through a lot of ails on our team right now. We just have to 'FIDO,' which is (expletive) it, drive on. That's what I was taught back in college.

“If I gave up a sack or anything bad happened, just FIDO. Don't let it affect where we're going, where we're headed.”

One reason the Packers may run more, too, is the unpredictability they lose with Finley sidelined. He stayed on the field and lined up everywhere.

Looking ahead, McCarthy said it's “important to define roles” for Green Bay's tight ends. Quarless is the most experienced of the three, but has been mostly non-existent in the passing game. Bostick's Finley-like frame—6-foot-3, 250 pounds—is why he has hung around to this point. But coaches have been hesitant to use him on game day with the high volume of checks, audibles and pre-snap adjustments involved.

Stoneburner has experience lining up at various spots from Urban Meyer's spread offense at Ohio State but was working on the scout team up to last week. And McCarthy said that Ryan Taylor (knee) is “pushing, coming back strong, so we'll see what he gives us potentially this week.”

Combined, the four tight ends have six catches for 39 yards this season. Getting James Jones back would help. McCarthy indicated the initial time line for Jones was “two, possibly three weeks,” though added “James is not your normal guy.”

Yet add it all up and it's a lot of moving parts.

Offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who also said that “the reports are good” on Finley, doesn't sound too concerned with always-changing personnel.

“We have a pretty good handle on what they can do,” Clements said. “They've been here since the spring, most of them have been here since the spring and throughout training camp so it's just a matter of taking what we know about them and putting them in a position to be successful. We know what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and we're not going to try to get them to do things they're not comfortable or capable of doing.”

Relief was the prevailing emotion Monday. On Twitter, Finley also wrote “I was able 2 walk to & from the shower today, which was badly needed after yesterday's victory!” Walking, talking, functioning like this on a day-to-day basis seemed in doubt those eerie five, six minutes at Lambeau Field Sunday night. Time froze.

In that sense, coaches and players alike were relieved Finley was OK. Sitton again described just how scary the scene was.

Now, Finley will continue to seek more information on his bruised spinal cord.

And the Packers will need to play on.



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