While he has no intention of turning his offense into a 50/50 run/pass operation, Mike McCarthy does have one preference: He’d love to have an every-down running back to be the Green Bay Packers clear-cut, go-to guy.
“(A) three-down back is what you want to play with. No one likes to come out of the game, and I’d rather them stay in the game (when I’m) calling plays,” the Packers coach explained during a break in the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. “(A) three-down back is something that, as you go through the (pre-draft) evaluation process, is part of their grade, part of their value. Whether you share them or have one, I really think your depth chart takes care of that.
“(But) just looking back at my experiences, it’s nicer when you have one guy and you’re feeding him.”
Earlier in his tenure in Green Bay, McCarthy had Ryan Grant, who put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons as the Packers’ featured back in 2008 and 2009. While Brandon Jackson was frequently the third-down back during that time because of his skill as a pass protector, Grant was capable of handling all three downs and did on occasion.
The Packers also seemed to be moving in that direction in 2012 before Cedric Benson suffered what turned out to be a season-ending Lisfranc foot sprain on Oct. 7 in Indianapolis. After that, the Packers had a revolving door at running back (James Starks, Alex Green and DuJuan Harris all saw time as the lead back) while fullback John Kuhn was the primary third-down back.
There’s reason to doubt whether Starks, Green or Harris could be every-down backs, as Starks has battled almost non-stop injuries, Green was inconsistent before his surgically repaired knee flared up and cost him the starting job and Harris’ size (5-foot-8) makes one wonder if he could handle the pounding and blitz pickups. Benson is an unrestricted free agent, but at age 30, he’s unlikely to get many offers and could return.
“(With one running back), there’s more rhythm to your play-calling and there’s more of a rhythm to the run-blocking unit and the fits of the protection and so forth, and then you take it and extend it into the passing game with the checkdowns,” McCarthy explained. “Today’s game, there’s not too many of those guys out there. The fact of the matter is, that’s a very demanding position. Your risk of injury is probably higher than at some other positions, particularly just in training camp and things like that. The more you have, the better you’re going to be, (but) that’s my preference.”
Two running backs that could fit the bill for the Packers are Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, who’s projected as a second-round pick, and Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, who isn’t running at the Combine because of a small hamstring tear but is expected to run at his on-campus pro day March 14. Although Lacy said he’s a Minnesota Vikings fan because of his favorite running back, Adrian Peterson, he also said he wouldn’t mind winding up in Green Bay.
“That wouldn’t be too bad,” said Lacy, who rushed for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns last season and is projected as a first-round pick. “I feel as though (defenses) wouldn’t just be able to spread the field out. They’d have to actually have to defend the run as well. If Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, you’re not going to put nine guys in the box. So it’ll kind of balances out.”
Ball, who rushed for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior after deciding not to declare for the NFL Draft last year, said on Friday that he had talked to the Packers and said that it would “mean a lot” if the Packers drafted him.
“It’s always been my dream to play in the NFL, and my job here is to impress as many teams and coaches as I can and hopefully get my foot in the door,” Ball said. “I know that I can help a team win. That’s what I truly believe in. My film shows that. I’m going to make sure I prove it a little bit more this weekend. And I think they should start taking running backs earlier.”
Ball said he feels he’s improved himself as an all-around back to where he shouldn’t simply be viewed as a ballcarrier.
“I do believe that I’m a better player. I do a lot of things better without the football — blocking, chipping ends and being a leader for my team. I try to pattern my game after Terrell Davis. He’s my idol. But I hear a lot and I’ve been watching a lot of tape of him, I feel like I run a lot like Curtis Martin. Nothing really stands out — like speed or strength, but we’re very balanced overall and very consistent.”
The Packers could also stand pat at the position, giving Harris an opportunity to prove himself while re-signing Benson to another minimum-salary deal while taking a wait-and-see approach with Green and Starks, both of whom have flashed their ability. At the very least, Packers GM Ted Thompson intimated that Harris is in the team’s plans after being promoted from the practice squad in December and rushing 34 times for 157 yards (4.6-yard average) and two touchdowns in regular-season play before carrying 28 times for 100 yards (3.6-yard average) and two TDs in the playoffs.
“He did a good job. And we’re looking forward to having him here for the whole thing, because when you come in in the middle of the season, you don’t go through the offseason, you don’t get to see them in training camp and the stress times and things like that. You’re already in the regular season,” Thompson said of Harris, who joined the practice squad in there’s a lot more that we need to get to know about him. But he did a nice job for us.”
Whatever the Packers’ personnel in the running game ends up being, McCarthy acknowledged that he needs to get better production. Green ran 135 times for a team-high 464 yards (3.4-yard average), Rodgers ranked second on the team with 54 runs for 259 yards (4.8), Starks was third with 71 carries for 255 yards (3.6), Benson fourth with 71 attempts for 248 yards (3.5) and Harris.
“When I evaluate this year’s run game, obviously there’s definitely room for improvement,” McCarthy said. “We talk repeatedly as a staff and an offense, the ability to run the football smart, and I’m not just talking about scheme, (I’m) talking about decision making, the attitude that carries over from two-back schemes to one-back schemes and those types of things.
“There were periods of this season that we ran the ball better. Our attempts improved. I think we can still run it more than we have the last two years. It’s an area of focus for our offense. We definitely need to do a better job.”
If they do, it would make life better for the quarterback, who remains the focal point of the offense.
“Our quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, gives us the ability to do a number of different things at the line of scrimmage. So with that, it’s really the production (of the running game),” McCarthy said. “If you look at the history of our offense as long as long as Aaron’s been playing, the number rushing attempts is a pretty good indicator of the success of his productivity, when you tie those two together.
“Those are the numbers I really pay attention to, because when you don’t hit the targets. The attempts are the body blows, then obviously the quality then counts. Quality obviously helps the quantity to get to where it needs to be.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.