Long Week of Grieving, Healing, Adjusting

It's been a week unlike any other in the aftermath of Jermichael Finley's life-altering neck injury, from the fear and pain of Sunday evening to the adjusting and preparation for this week's game at Minnesota.

For Jerry Fontenot, this has been one of the most difficult weeks of his professional career.

Not only did he lose his star player, Jermichael Finley, to a life-altering neck injury, but he'll have to cobble together a productive group from a relatively unaccomplished group.

"It's been a little bit trying," said Fontenot, the Green Bay Packers' tight ends coach. "The good side of that is, first and foremost, he's healthy, and we just want to make sure that he gets back to 100 percent. … So, where do we go from here? With Jermichael, the No. 1 thing is to make sure he and his family are taken care of because, over and above what we do, we're people first. He's our No. 1 concern. In terms of football, we have to fill in the pieces and we have a certain expectations level for what our position should produce, and that's not going to change, regardless of personnel. We may have to adjust things somewhat as far as how playing time goes and how many reps guys are getting but, other than that, we fully expect our tight position to produce."

From Fontenot's vantage point from the field, he knew something was amiss when he saw the ball trickle out of Finley's hands upon being tackled by Browns safety Tashaun Gipson. His anxiousness was heightened when he saw fellow tight end Andrew Quarless standing over the fallen Finley.

"Obviously, from there, it was a little bit surreal," Fontenot said. "And then I went out on to the field at some point to see how he was, and by that point they had already taken off his facemask, so I knew it probably wasn't good."

Fontenot entered the NFL in 1989, the same year as Dennis Byrd and Mike Utley. Byrd, a member of the New York Jets, sustained a broken neck in a 1992 game and was temporarily paralyzed. He was the focus of a book and movie when he regained his ability to walk. Utley, a member of the Detroit Lions, broke his neck in a 1991 game and is a paraplegic.

"Unfortunately, you get visions of injuries like that occurring and it's always tough to see," Fontenot said. "Whenever it's one of the guys in your family, it's really hard. We'll all be here and be supportive and, hopefully, there's a gold pot at the end of the rainbow here. Sometimes through hardships, good things come out of it."

Fortunately for Finley, the injury wasn't nearly that severe. While his football career is in jeopardy due to what's been reported as a bruised spinal cord, Finley returned home on Thursday after being in a local hospital since the injury. He was at Lambeau Field and met coach Mike McCarthy and, presumably, the training staff on Friday.

Finley, a fourth-round pick in 2008, was having the best of his career. With 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns even while essentially missing the Cincinnati game after sustaining a concussion early in the game, he was on pace for 67 receptions for 800 yards and eight touchdowns. His career highs were 61 receptions in 2012 and 767 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011.

Beyond the numbers, Finley was catching the ball better than ever and had become a tremendous threat after the catch. He broke four tackles alone on his touchdown catch against Cleveland, a play that jump-started the Packers to an easy victory.

"From the time that I was given the responsibility of taking tight ends room (2011) ‘til the end of the season, I thought he made a big change just in terms of his whole demeanor and his confidence level," Fontenot said. "And that kind of carried through the offseason. We picked up where we left off at the end of last season and I think he was playing with as much enthusiasm and confidence that I had ever seen in that short amount of time."

Getting ready for Sunday's game at Minnesota has been a challenge, beyond the obvious of trying to put together a winning game plan without Finley, Randall Cobb (broken fibula; short-term injured reserve) and James Jones (knee; doubtful).

"It's a big moment for the group as a whole," Fontenot said. "Whenever you lose a guy like Jermichael with the kind of enthusiasm and competitive nature that he has — he adds some juice to the room. Now, the question is who's going to bring that to the room now?"

As Quarless put it on Friday: "He's one of a kind. He's one of a kind."

The injury hit the team hard, with a fallen friend bringing a harsh reality to the brutality of the game. That was especially true for Fontenot and his players. By late in the week, however, the team had moved on as much as possible, thanks to the normalcy provided by the weekly routine and Friday's appearance of Finley.

"I think our football team is in a good place, especially having the opportunity to see Jermichael," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I know a lot of people were able to get over to the hospital to see him. Just seeing him walk in here today I think is what everybody needed to see."

The team will lean on Quarless, who replaced the injured Finley as a rookie in 2010 and helped the Packers win the Super Bowl. Quarless has 28 career catches, including four this season, with one touchdown. Brandon Bostick is a first-year player with zero career catches and Jake Stoneburner is a rookie with zero catches. Both entered the league as undrafted free agents. Ryan Taylor, a seventh-round pick in 2011, should return soon after knee surgery. He's got four career catches, including two this season, and one touchdown.

Add it up, and that's 32 career catches and two touchdowns.

"Because it's something that we need because of his experience and his time here, a lot is going to fall on him and he's capable," Fontenot said. "For what we're asking of him, I don't think we're asking him to do anything that's outside of his capabilities. With that, all guys — Brandon is going to have to step up and Jake, they're going to get more reps, they're going to get more exposure. They're going to get more time working with Aaron (Rodgers), so it's going to be a process by which things aren't going to be perfect, but as long as we keep moving forward, we can deal with that."

Quarless, who missed all of last season with a knee injury sustained late in 2011, said during training camp that his goal wasn't simply to return. He wanted to return and become a great player.

Now's his chance.

"I think it's been building since the beginning of the season," Quarless said. "Every week, I've been getting better. This next week is the next step in me building myself as a player."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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