Running at an Accelerated Pace
by Mike Conklin
August 4, 2013
The Packers have consistently been a good team for several years now. They have won 28 of their last 34 regular season games. They are led by arguably the best quarterback in the league, who is at the peak of what is on track to be a Hall of Fame career. Simply put, they are one of the most difficult teams in the league to beat.
Even when they don't win a championship, a team like the Packers doesn't need to make wholesale changes in the offseason. Staying true to form, they didn't. The team signed their biggest stars to contract extensions, and like always they are counting on several young players to continue to develop and step up.
So what might get the Packers over the proverbial hump and back to another Super Bowl? Perhaps a small adjustment may pay big dividends.
The concept is nothing new. Little things can make a big difference. One could even say that it is an idea of biblical proportions that was mentioned in Scripture over 2,000 years ago:
"Or think of a ship: big as it is and driven by such strong winds, it can be steered by a very small rudder, and it goes wherever the pilot wants it to go." --James 3:4
As captain of the Packers ship, Mike McCarthy isn’t going to make sweeping changes to an offense that finished in the top ten of the NFL in each of his first six seasons as head coach. But after dropping to 13th in total offense last year, he appears ready to tweak his approach and move the rudder a bit. And that adjustment will likely come in the form of the Packers running game.
Last year, five NFL teams had 500 or more rushing attempts. Four of those five teams made the playoffs. The Packers finished 16th in the league in rushing attempts. In fact, of the twelve teams that made the playoffs last season, only two had fewer rushing attempts than the Packers (Cincinnati and Atlanta).
In McCarthy's entire tenure in Green Bay, the Packers have never rushed the ball more than 438 times. In two of those seasons, they failed to reach even 400 rush attempts and were near the bottom of the league in that category. Since Aaron Rodgers took over the quarterback job in 2008, the Packers have never finished higher than 14th in rush attempts in any season. As the primary play caller, Mike McCarthy simply has chosen not to run the ball particularly often.
In recent history, the Packers have also not been particularly effective when they did choose to run. They have not averaged higher than 3.9 yards per carry in any season since 2009, which was the last year Ryan Grant was healthy and at the top of his game. The team has had to rely on a mish-mash of players to carry the ball since that time, and many of those running backs--including James Starks, Alex Green, Cedric Benson, and Ryan Grant himself--were on and off the injury report for much of that time.
This offseason, it almost seems as though Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson evaluated their anemic rushing offense of the past few years and said "enough is enough."
In April, the Packers drafted two of the top running back prospects. In June, McCarthy went on record and guaranteed that the running game will be better. Now in August, the running game is showing signs of life again. That impression was definitely left on 63,000 fans in attendance on Family Night, as well as the head coach.
"I was pleased with the way the offense ran the ball," McCarthy said after the scrimmage. "I thought the running game was productive and I thought the backs made good decisions."
The player that left the strongest impression was Eddie Lacy, who provided a glimpse of what a difference he and his fellow running backs can make for the Packers offense. Perhaps beat reporter Bill Huber of Packer Report said it best:
If this is how Lacy's going to run in regular season, play-action might return to Green Bay.— Packer Report (@PackerReport) August 4, 2013
In McCarthy’s entire tenure in Green Bay, the Packers have never rushed the ball more than 438 times. In his seven years at the helm, the team has averaged 420 carries. It appears there is a good chance that number will increase this season, in an effort to diversify the offense. The Packers have not had as many as 450 rush attempts in ten years, which is going back to when Ahman Green was in his prime. That number could very well be threatened this season.
Perhaps even more important than the number of rushing attempts is the average yards gained during those attempts. In order to keep defenses honest, which would theoretically allow more play-action opportunities as Huber referenced above, the Packers will need to better their three-year average of 3.9 yards per carry.
In the early going, it appears that the additions of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin may help. DuJuan Harris didn't set foot on the field until December last season, but he averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his limited opportunities. And it should not be overlooked how much better of a run blocker Evan Dietrich-Smith is right now than Jeff Saturday was last year. Pro Football Focus graded Saturday as not only the worst run blocker on the team, but the worst run blocking center in the entire league. Conversely, Dietrich-Smith was rated as the second-best run blocker on the team behind only Josh Sitton, although he admittedly offered a small sample size.
If everything in the running game comes together as planned and the Packers can indeed make Mike McCarthy good on his promise, the Green Bay offense has a chance to return to form as one of the best in the league.
Such a result would make the Packers an even more difficult team to beat.
Photo Credit: Getty Images