Packers looking to jumpstart running game with 'stacked' backfield
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Perhaps the axiom in the NFL that says if you have two starting quarterbacks of roughly equal skill you really have none could be better applied to Green Bay's running game. Try as they might to find a reliable lead rushing threat in recent years, the Packers have resorted to installing a revolving door in their backfield, holding what amounts to in-game tryouts for running backs of varying degrees of reputation and pedigree.
Unsurprisingly, this approach has been taxing on all concerned, and there's a certain illness and fatigue that has resulted from it. Meaning the Packers are pretty sick and tired of not having a running game they can rely on.
"Last year, we started five different guys at running back,'' Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, "and that's difficult to do. To have five guys with, at the very minimum, slightly different styles. You need a 1-2 punch in this league, with a difference-maker on third down. We just haven't had that obviously around here in a while.''
But they may have it now, with the Packers spending a pair of draft picks this year on running backs, selecting the powerful Eddie Lacy of Alabama in the second round and doubling down with UCLA's explosive Jonathan Franklin in the fourth round. The Packers' offense is still going to start and end with the right arm of Rodgers, but in between Green Bay intends to field a legitimate NFL running game this season, one that can help put away games in the second half, keep its defense off the field for significant stretches and run the ball when everyone in the ballpark knows they have to, like in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Last season, due to injuries and ineffectiveness, the Packers opened the season with veteran Cedric Benson as their lead back, had to switch to Alex Green when Benson was lost for the year in October and also saw James Starks, DuJuan Harris and the re-signed Ryan Grant take turns in the backfield. Including Rodgers, the Packers had six different leading rushers in a game in 2012, with Green leading the club with a paltry 464 yards on 135 carries (3.4) and six other players finishing in triple digits in yardage. No Packers runner had even an 85-yard rushing game, let alone a 100, and Green Bay's nine rushing touchdowns were tied for 25th best in the NFL.
It's getting to be a very familiar tune in Green Bay. The Packers ranked 20th in the league in rushing with 106.4 yards per game last season, after being 27th in 2011 (97.4) and 24th in 2010 (100.4), and they haven't averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry since 2009, a statistical shortcoming they're well aware of in Titletown.
"We'd like to be the kind of team when push comes to shove we can say we're going to run this ball and there's not much you can do about it,'' Packers general manager Ted Thompson said after a recent training camp practice. "[In] the past we haven't been that way. I think the fact we drafted two [running backs] this year shows we'd like to run the ball better. We've had trouble over the last several years keeping guys healthy and getting consistent production in the running game.''
The day I spent in Packers camp last week, both of Green Bay's rookie backs had strong practice-field showings, with Franklin catching a long scoring pass that Rodgers dropped perfectly into his arms down the right sideline, and Lacy consistently displaying the vision, feet and instinct to hit the hole and run north and south. Watching Lacy run the gauntlet drill, I don't know that I've ever seen a running back power his way through that particular practice staple with more determination or a head of steam.
Franklin, at 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, runs with speed, acceleration and shiftiness, while the 5-11, 230-pound Lacy is a downhill-style inside runner who wastes few steps and doles out as much punishment as he receives. He can gain those all-important yards after contact, while Franklin supplies the "wow'' factor and open-field wiggle the Packers have lacked in recent seasons. Green Bay's longest run from scrimmage was just 41 yards in 2012.
"It's exciting to see both of those guys doing what they were brought in to do,'' Rodgers said. "I think Jonathan from the mental side has a slight edge right now, just because he understands [passing game] progressions well and he's done a little bit more of that at UCLA. But Eddie obviously has the physical stature and downhill running style that [head coach] Mike [McCarthy] has always appreciated in this running game.
"I'm going to temper my feelings here until we see them in a game and see them with live bullets, but they're doing the right things and it's exciting. In this locker room, at least in training camp, we're not talking about running back being the position that has the most competition. But this year I think we're talking about five guys who could all be starters. There are guys who are going to go from this camp, not make our team and make a roster somewhere else.''
Though Franklin and Lacy have been impressive, no one in Packers camp is forgetting about the strong late-season work turned in last year by Harris, who is still being held out of camp for at least another week or so with a knee injury. Harris came off the Green Bay practice squad for the final four games of the regular season and both playoffs contests, running for 257 yards and four touchdowns over that six-game span, with nine receptions for 81 yards.
Starks and Green are also very much in the mix, and both have had flashes of multi-game production in the past for the Packers. If someone can get hot in the preseason games -- Green Bay opens at home against Arizona on Friday night -- they might just run away with the starting job for Week 1 at San Francisco on Sept. 8.
"We're stacked,'' Starks said of the Packers' backfield. "I feel like each guy in the running back room is capable of being that guy. It makes it competitive, and each guy seems to have his own particular strength and talent. I think they [the Packers] did a great job picking those guys [Lacy and Franklin]. It's going to be fun to see who steps up, who starts taking over and wins the job.''
The running back depth chart "1 through 5 is as talented a group of guys [as] we've had since I've been here,'' Rodgers said. But this week, of course, brought a blow to the Green Bay running game, with the potential season-ending loss of offensive left tackle Bryan Bulaga with a torn ACL. Fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari appears to be the next man up, but already the plans to reconfigure the Packers' offensive line this season have been disrupted, and that could have ramifications for the new emphasis on the running game.
"You need to run the football and I clearly understand the importance of it,'' McCarthy said. "I don't ever go into the game saying, 'Aaron, let's throw it every snap.' Now we're good at that, throwing the ball, because he's gifted. But you need to run it because if you have a fast-break offense and get out in front, you need to put the game away with the running game. And we haven't done a good job of putting games away, and that's a bit of a hole in our running game. We need to be better at that, and I think we'll clearly do that this year.''
Lacy showed the Packers something the first week of camp without ever putting on the pads. When an unflattering practice-field photo of him looking considerably larger than the 230 pounds he's listed at went viral on the Internet and became a social media worldwide trending topic for a day or so, Lacy took it in stride and never fired back at the criticism and derision the picture inspired. Plenty of other photos showed Lacy looking like he was at his normal weight, and both Thompson and McCarthy said Lacy had passed his pre-camp conditioning test and wasn't overweight or out of shape.
"I'm not a defensive person, but it didn't feel good,'' Lacy admitted. "You don't like to be talked about in a social media setting, where everybody's saying this or that about you. But you just have to accept it and take the good with the bad. You're on a pedestal and under a microscope in this game, and everybody's looking at you. You can't let that affect you. I have a job to do and I can't let something somebody says about me on Twitter throw me off. That does nothing for you or the organization.''
The rookie running backs in Green Bay aren't making any big predictions of immediate impact, but it's clear the Packers have finally invested some resources in the run game that will pay off this season. The days of the sub-500-yard team rushing leader are over, or had better be.
"You know coming into this organization that the offense starts with Aaron Rodgers,'' Lacy said. "But I think they drafted me and Franklin to come in and add that second dimension to the offense. If we can get two or three guys rolling, we should be able to make that part of our game better and run the ball with some consistency and authority. I know for myself, I'm very anxious to go out and show the fans everything I'm capable of doing.''
In Green Bay, the ground game has at last made some significant gains.