Alex Van Pelt and his wife Brooke have three kids – daughters Payton and Katherine and son Jack – so as a veteran dad, the Green Bay Packers running backs coach has doled out his share of this-will-hurt-me-more-than-it-hurts-you punishment over the years.
That’s roughly how Van Pelt felt last Sunday, when he had to bench starting running back Eddie Lacy for his second-quarter fumble. The rookie second-round pick from Alabama did plenty of good things during his National Football League regular-season debut – scoring his first touchdown (a 3-yard run that gave the Packers a 28-24 lead), gaining 31 yards on a screen pass (to set up the Packers’ first touchdown) and carrying nine times for 37 yards (a 4.1-yard average) in the second half – but his performance also contained too many mistakes, including the fumble that landed him on the bench next to Van Pelt for the remainder of the first half.
“He was definitely in a timeout. That’s a tough lesson but it’s one hopefully he’ll carry along with him,” Van Pelt explained Thursday, as Lacy and the Packers prepped for Sunday’s home opener against the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field. “I hope we sent a message to him that that’s unacceptable. I kind of told him right before half, ‘OK, get your mind right. We’re coming out in the second half and we’re going to ride you a little bit. We went right back to him.
“It’s a tough lesson for any guy to learn but it did give him time to cool off and – not be a spectator – but relax a little bit and watch James do it. It’s unfortunate he had to sit by me on three drives, but that’s the way it goes.”
Earlier this week, when asked to assess Lacy’s performance, coach Mike McCarthy didn’t exactly gush. Even though Lacy brings some much-needed credibility to the run game the Packers are trying to establish, even though he’s the clear-cut No. 1 guy after DuJuan Harris was lost for the season with a knee injury, even though Lacy showed he can be the three-down back that the team is looking for, McCarthy – another veteran dad, by the way – made it clear that what Lacy did wasn’t good enough.
“Eddie needs to detail his work,” McCarthy replied on Monday. “Whether it’s the runs, protection, our young guys … it was their first game. And he was one of them. I don’t want to say he was nervous, but he just needs to clean some things up. He’s young, it’s his first time really playing in the no-huddle type situation. Going that fast, we have a lot on his plate.
“My goal for him is to be a three-down player and keep him in there and keep him playing. Because when he’s in there, I mean, he’s a fine young football player. But the details – that’s the difference between winning and losing in this league.”
By midweek, McCarthy’s review had softened a bit.
“Eddie's had a good couple days. He's getting more and more in tune with the offense,” McCarthy said after practice. “It's the little things. Eddie's no different than any other rookie that comes into an offense with a veteran quarterback that has the ability to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. I don't care who you bring in here, all of our new guys who are first- and second-year players are really challenged at this time of year. I like what I see. He's off to a good week."
Still, while Lacy’s talent is obvious, McCarthy is right about the details. The first time quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked against the 49ers – when Aldon Smith avoided left tackle David Bakhtiari’s cut block – Lacy was on the wrong side of Rodgers to help. While Rodgers can be seen on film motioning for Lacy to move to the right tackle side, Van Pelt said Thursday that it was “definitely a bust by Eddie.” On another blitz pickup, Lacy chipped Smith on the defender’s outside shoulder, which was the wrong leverage because he should have directed the him toward the outside.
In addition, Lacy had never played in a no-huddle offense in college at Alabama – he did play in 2-minute drills, of course – and picking up the play wasn’t always clean for him. And while Van Pelt said he didn’t give Lacy a minus grade for any of his reads on running plays, Lacy finished the first half with five carries for 4 yards, plus the fumble.
“There are so many details. This offense, it’s tough on any player in this system,” Van Pelt said. “It’s a very intelligent offensive system so it takes smart guys in there to understand all the nuisances and all the wrinkles.
“Detailing your work (means) taking notes in meetings. Taking care of your body on the off-day, there’s a lot that goes into that. We’re just trying to get Eddie to be a pro, teach him to be a pro. Teach him now to take care of his body, learn in the classroom and transfer it to the field. All those things.”
Even on his 31-yard screen, Lacy’s detailing was lacking.
“I’d like to see him get the ball in the other hand, use the stiff arm on (49ers safety Donte) Whitner and score,” Van Pelt said. “But it was a big play that sparked us to our first score.
“I think Eddie – after a rough start there – really settled in and I think you got to see the true ability he has (for) making the right read in the run game and being able to run with some power (and) quickness. It’s going to be a growing thing with Eddie. Obviously, we expect continued growth each week.”
With McCarthy’s stated goal of using Lacy as a three-down back, that growth will be vital. And while his coaches may have harped on his imperfections, the talent is there according to the guy whose playing time Lacy will be cutting into on third downs – fullback John Kuhn.
“I think he’s great – a great, young, talented running back. I think he’s only going to get better with time,” Kuhn said. “I told a couple other guys, he’s ahead of the curve. He’s not the normal rookie you see at this point in time in their career. The more confidence he gets, the better he’s going to be. So we’re trying to get him that confidence as early as possible.
“All the little detailed mistakes that he made in the game – he knows the answers to those. It’s slowing the moment down, making it his speed, making it more his level. The more confident he gets, the more aggressive he will be able to play, trust himself and make those details happen.”
While Lacy did play on third down at Alabama, his responsibilities are far greater when he is on the field with Rodgers, Kuhn said.
“It’s pretty tough. He’s got to read a front, he’s got to read a coverage and he’s got to know his job and how that changes depending on those fronts and coverages,” Kuhn explained. “Like I said he’s doing a lot better than his age would show. He’s definitely ahead of the curve. (But) until he really feels that rhythm and one good drive and groove where he really knows the decisions he makes and they’re all correct. Then he’s going to be able to run with his confidence. I think right now he’s close, very close. He wasn’t too far off in that San Francisco game.”
For his part, Lacy confessed to being more nervous for Sunday’s game than he’d ever been in his football life – including the pair of BCS Championship Games he played at Alabama – but didn’t blame any of his mistakes on anxiety.
“I’m nervous before every game, man. It just comes with the game. For me personally, it does,” Lacy said. “It (took) longer than usual (to calm down), I can tell you that much. Longer than college. But I don’t think it’ll be like that for the rest of the season.
“It’s the 49ers and it’s my first game ever. I was nervous, but after that I got there pretty good, and it was a steppingstone for me. I just take the good and the bad from that game. I’ve got a long season, just continue to play.”
For Lacy, who spent his first two years at Alabama behind future NFL first-round picks Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and shared some time last year with current Crimson Tide starter T.J. Yeldon, staying on the field for every down is a goal. And he’s on his way.