Forget about the “Fail Mary.” Forget Lance Easley’s never-ending quest to extend his 15 minutes of fame, sell a few more books and book a speaking engagement or two. (Not to mention appearing at Seattle-area comedy shows and umpiring Richard Sherman’s charity softball game.)
The real travesty that occurred two years ago when the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks on that controversial last-second touchdown pass happened not on the final play, but when the Green Bay Packers ran 23 pass plays and three designed running plays – three! – during the first half of the game. As a result, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked a jaw-dropping eight times in the first 30 minutes, and the Packers went into halftime trailing, 7-0.
“We had multiple stretches there with double-digit passes in a row,” Rodgers recalled this week. “They were just able to put us in unfavorable down-and-distances and cover up pretty well [in the secondary] and I had to hold the ball. And they got to us."
That they did. In the second half, lead back Cedric Benson got the ball 15 times – compared to just two in the first half – and the Packers actually held a 12-7 lead at the time of the controversial final play, which, in case you forgot, was ruled a touchdown after Packers safety M.D. Jennings and Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate were ruled to have had simultaneous possession of the ball by Easley.
But just as Thursday night’s NFL Kickoff game is unlikely to end in anything so stunning, you can rest assured that Packers coach Mike McCarthy won’t be running such an unbalanced offense, either. Not with second-year running back Eddie Lacy – and no-slouch backups James Starks and DuJuan Harris – in the backfield.
In fact, the idea of having a healthy Rodgers, who missed seven full games and all but one series of another with a fractured collarbone, and Lacy, who essentially played in just 14 games because of a concussion on his opening carry in Week 2 last season, has the head coach and his staff believing that this offense could be the best of McCarthy’s nine-year tenure.
“Together, we definitely can be explosive,” said Lacy, who rushed for a franchise rookie-record 1,178 yards on 284 carries last season en route to winning the NFL offensive rookie of the year award. “It takes the guys up front as well, and they’ve been working hard and making sure they block their man. So, it should be a good year for us.”
It should be better than good. Because of Rodgers’ fractured collarbone and Lacy’s concussion, the duo lined up in the Packers’ backfield together for only seven full games last season: The season-opening loss at San Francisco; a four-game stretch against Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland and Minnesota in October; the regular-season finale at Chicago; and the season-ending playoff loss to the 49ers.
The Packers won all four of those October games, with Lacy carrying 97 times for 395 yards (4.1-yard average) and two touchdowns. In those four games, Rodgers completed 86 of 127 passes for 1,134 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception for a 110.8 passer rating.
The most telling game came at Minnesota on Oct. 27. After losing wide receivers James Jones (knee) and Randall Cobb (leg) in the game against the Ravens two weeks earlier and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) against the Browns, Rodgers was 24 of 29 for 285 yards with two touchdowns, Lacy carried the ball 29 times for 94 yards and a touchdown, and the only possession on which the Packers didn’t score was on their kneel-downs at the end of the game.
The next week, when Rodgers broke his collarbone on the opening series, Lacy ran for a season-high 150 yards on 22 carries.
It’s that kind of production the coaches are hoping for with both Rodgers and Lacy healthy.
“Eddie’s a very good runner,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said, stating the obvious. “If we can run the ball, it makes our passing game that much more effective. That’s the history of the game from way back when. If you can do that and keep the defense off balance, that’s helpful.”
Indeed it is. When he was the Buffalo Bills’ backup quarterback in the 1990s, Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt got to watch two Pro Football Hall of Fame players – quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas – operate in the same offensive backfield. While those teams are remembered for Kelly’s passing – and for losing four straight Super Bowls following the 1990 through 1993 seasons – Thomas put together eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,297 yards in 1990, 1,407 yards in 1991, 1,487 yards in 1992 and 1,315 yards in 1993.
During that span, Kelly threw for 2,829 yards in 1990, 3,844 yards in 1991, 3,457 yards in 1992 and 3,382 yards in 1993.
“The thing about those Buffalo teams you don’t really realize is, they were a top-5 rushing team and a top-5 passing team in those Super Bowl years,” said Van Pelt, who also likened Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson to the Bills’ Andre Reed, a 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrine. “It wasn’t just the K-Gun throwing the ball around, it was Thurman running it as well. So to have a dual threat, run and pass, only makes us more explosive.”
Although the Seahawks consistently play a one-high safety look as their bread-and-butter defense, and did so in the teams’ 2012 meeting, most of the Packers’ other opponents that year employed two-high safety looks to dare the Packers to run while trying to prevent Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, from making big plays downfield. It wasn’t until Harris emerged late in the year that the Packers had any running game to speak of.
When Rodgers went down midway through last season, though, the opposite happened. Hell-bent on stopping Lacy, and watching the Packers parade three quarterbacks – Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn – onto the field while Rodgers was out, defenses stacked the box and dared the Packers to throw.
Now, with both healthy, what do they do?
“We'll see,” Rodgers replied. “We'll see how teams are going to play us. When I was out last year, we saw a lot more one-high [safety looks] when Eddie was in there and James [was] running the ball really effectively. But, we were still able to run the ball well. I'm not sure what's going to change with me back in there full-time, but either way, we should at different times find some more one-high, one-on-one looks for [wide receivers] Jarrett [Boykin] and Randall and Jordy. And we've got to win those one-on-one battles.”
If they do, and if Lacy & Co. are successful on the ground, the Packers could be dominant. Even with Rodgers basically missing half the season, the Packers still managed 65 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season, the fourth-most in the 32-team league. They also were fourth in the league in yards per play (5.96), gained the second-most yards in a season in franchise history (6.404), ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards (266.8 per game) and their 400.3 yards per game ranked third in the league.
In short, despite missing one of the best quarterbacks in the league – and a number of pass-catching weapons – due to injury, the passing game was still a productive one statistically.
“There’s no defensive coordinator that’s going to close the middle of the field and give a great quarterback the opportunity to win 1-on-1 unless he has to,” Van Pelt said. “And for us to have that happen, we have to run the ball well, which we’ve done. So now, it’s pick-your-poison. Are you going to come down and stop the run? Or are you going to defend the pass and give us a better box to run in?
“It’s a great problem to have for us, and we feel like we really have three runners who can go in and do different things. So now we have three guys that can really be explosive in the run game as we get the [box] good looks, until they drop down, and then we have the outside.”
Of course, it’s still incumbent on the offense to make all this a reality, starting with Thursday night’s opener.