GREEN BAY, Wis. - Mike McCarthy clearly had had enough. The topic had been brought up repeatedly ever since the 2013 NFL Draft concluded, so the Green Bay Packers coach – and action film aficionado, who knew? – answered the question with a question.
McCarthy had just been asked for the umpteenth time about the potential impact of a vastly improved running game, after quarterback Aaron Rodgers and what had been a virtually unstoppable offense in 2011 saw a steady diet of two-high safety looks throughout the 2012 season.
With not one but two big-name rookie running backs having been added in the draft – second-round pick Eddie Lacy of Alabama and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin of UCLA – and the offensive line having been overhauled, it seemed to be worth asking: Did the guy calling the plays – McCarthy – believe he could get opposing defenses to respect the ground game enough to force them out of those two-shell looks and stop daring his team to run the ball against them.
McCarthy leaned back in his chair and smiled.
"Did you ever see the movie The Fugitive?" he asked. "It's awesome."
The coach, of course, was referring to the 1993 action hit starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, based on the 1960s television show.
"You remember that scene up in the gutter, where he's getting ready to jump off the waterfall?" McCarthy continued. "Harrison Ford turns around and he says, ‘I didn't kill my wife.' And what does Tommie Lee Jones say?
I don't care, came the reply.
"Exactly," McCarthy said. "I. Don't. Care. Now, what was your question?"
Can you get defenses to respect your run game?
"I. Don't. Care. I don't care," McCarthy repeated. "Because we're going to run it when we're going to run it, and we're going to throw it when we want to throw it."
As the play-caller, McCarthy will indeed make those decisions, with Rodgers having some freedom at the line of scrimmage – as he's always had – to check from a run to a pass or vice versa. But while McCarthy can claim until the cows come home that he doesn't care what his opponents think about his running backs – DuJuan Harris, Alex Green, James Starks, Lacy and Franklin – the fact remains that defenses' lack of respect for what Cedric Benson, Green, Starks, Harris and Ryan Grant might do was indeed an issue for the fifth-highest scoring offense in the NFL last year.
The Packers haven't had a 100-yard rusher in their last 43 regular-season games, more than twice as long as any other active streak in the NFL. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers' running backs have combined for 12 rushing touchdowns and are averaging just 3.8 yards per rush over the last three seasons – the fewest in the NFL for both categories. No wonder teams played both their safeties back to take away the deep ball and force Rodgers & Co. to drive the length of the field on them.
During his 2011 NFL MVP season, Rodgers had 40 completions of 25 yards or more while starting 15 games. (He sat out the regular-season finale when there was nothing to play for.) Last year, in 16 starts, Rodgers had 33 such plays.
"If teams want to play us a 2-shell defense, we're going to have to be able to run them out of it," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "If we're able to do that, get them into some 1-high looks, that's to our advantage. So we're going to try to be efficient in each aspect.
"(The lack of a running threat) had an effect. In previous years, our action passing game was very productive. We hit some big shots down the field. And we didn't get the type of reaction on the run-fakes that we had gotten previously, when we were able to run the ball better. Hopefully we get that and they have to come up and stop it, and we get that reaction."
Which running back will present that threat will be decided in training camp, which kicks off July 26. Harris finished the season as the starter, having moved up from the practice squad on Dec. 1 and announced his presence in his Packers debut against Detroit at Lambeau Field on Dec. 9, running seven times for 31 yards – including an 11-yard run on his first carry that saw him barrel over Lions safety Ricardo Silva. Later, Harris added a 14-yard touchdown run and ended up playing 126 snaps in regular- and postseason play, carrying a total of 62 times for 257 yards (4.15 yards per carry) and four touchdowns in six games.
But Harris missed the entire offseason – first with an undisclosed injury, then after having a fist-sized cyst surgically removed from his lung – and he'll have to fend off the two rookies and two ex-starters to remain in the go-to role.
"It would have been a big camp to get him back for since he hasn't gone through one with us last year," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt admitted. "Competition brings out the best in everybody. It's going to be tough to fight for spots and fight for carries, but that's what you do. Especially the running back room, you need that depth."
You also need productivity, and as McCarthy well knows, Jones' tough-guy character, U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, does indeed end up caring that Dr. Richard Kimble did not in fact kill his wife. Perhaps by season's end, McCarthy will be acknowledging a run game that made a world of difference.
"We've tweaked our run game a little bit and we're doing some stuff that we think will help us improve, regardless of the runners. So I'm excited about the run game," Van Pelt, who was a quarterback as a player, said. "If you can tackle the running back with six in the box and keep him to 2, 3 yards a carry, you can sit in Cover-2 all day and play the pass. What we've got to do is make them honor our run game and have to bring an extra guy down. That's what we're shooting for.
"It's frustrating for the quarterback to run the ball against Cover-2 for no gain or 2 yards. If we have good numbers, we should have good angles in the run game and explosive gains. But it's everything coming together – receivers doing a great job blocking, the line, and the back feeling it the right way. But if we have good numbers, we should be successful in the run game."
QUICK READ: RUNNING BACKS
Is Harris the real deal?
Not since Ryan Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons have the Packers had a consistent, go-to running back to carry the load. While the team certainly has options at the position, Harris showed down the stretch that he was equal to the task. Even though the Packers have the look of one of those maddening teams for fantasy footballers – one with no clear-cut lead back – head coach Mike McCarthy did say at the annual NFL Meetings in Arizona in March that he'd prefer to have an every-down back. If the compact 5-foot-8, 203-pound Harris seizes the opportunity, he just might be that guy.
On the rise
The third-year back failed to make the most of his opportunity to be the team's starting running back after Cedric Benson was lost for the season to a foot injury on Oct. 7, but as it turns out, it wasn't all Green's fault. After seeing his rookie season end in October 2011 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, Green's comeback from the injury had him back in time for training camp but began to have problems with the knee after the bye week, as scar tissue built up and he lost range of motion and confidence in it. Not everyone comes back from an ACL like Adrian Peterson, clearly. Now healthy and having gotten plenty of work in OTAs and minicamp, don't dismiss him as a contender. "I think we've got flashes and glimpses from before the injury," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "I'll tell you, that's a tough kid. The guys worked his butt off through all that stuff last year and came back and didn't play at 100 percent and never complained one time. I know I've got a hard worker. I'm excited to see him another year healthier and his explosion and everything he brought to the table before the injury."
Player to watch
Retired Packers general manager Ron Wolf was fond of saying that you could never rule someone "in" based on what you saw in offseason minicamps in shorts and helmets, but you could certainly rule someone "out," as he did with a few of his draft picks that never amounted to anything. That said, Franklin sure grabbed your attention if you were on the sideline during the team's offseason OTAs. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound rookie showed burst and acceleration with the ball under his arm, has the ability to catch out of the backfield and could also factor into the return game as a possible kickoff returner, which would allow wide receiver Randall Cobb to focus more on playing offense.
Starting running back.
Based on draft pedigree, the Packers' greatest investment has been in Lacy, a first-round player who deep into the second round because of lingering injury concerns from his time at Alabama. The others – Green (third round), Franklin (fourth round), Starks (sixth round), Harris (street free agent who entered the league as an undrafted free agent) and Pease (undrafted rookie free agent) – came into the league with less fanfare. Historically, GM Ted Thompson hasn't viewed the position with much urgency, either. In his previous eight drafts in Green Bay, Thompson had selected a not-so-grand total of six running backs or fullbacks: Brandon Jackson (second round), fullback Korey Hall (sixth round) and halfback DeShawn Wynn (seventh) in 2007; fullback Quinn Johnson (fifth) in 2009; Starks (sixth) in 2010; and Green (third) in 2011. Now, he used two relatively high picks on the position, and has three holdovers who've all started games in the past. This should be a whale of a battle.
In the 2013 NFL Draft, 26 running backs were selected. The Packers took two of the first seven. Before the Packers took Lacy at No. 61, the Cincinnati Bengals took North Carolina's Giovani Bernard at No. 37; the Pittsburgh Steelers took Le'Veon Bell at No. 48 and the Denver Broncos took Montee Ball at No. 58. Then came Lacy at No. 61, followed by Texas A&M's Christine Michael going to the Seattle Seahawks at No. 62 and Arkansas' Knile Davis going to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 96. Franklin, who like Lacy expected to be drafted earlier, went at No. 125, as the Packers traded up into the fourth round to take him as a value pick.
"Oh yeah, there's no question. There's limited reps and a lot of guys rolling through. It'll play itself out as we go forward – as the young guys get more in tune with what we're doing, they'll get more reps. In camp I'd expect those (rookie backs) to step right in and see how they retain, see how they function in the no-huddle. It'll sort itself out, but I do look at reps and I do try and fit the style of runs that we're having on that day to the back. Eddie may get more of the two-back stuff, or Johnathan might get more of the single-back stuff, and James a bigger body more of the two back. More the style of the run, trying to split the reps up so guys can feel comfortable in the role we feel we'll have for them during the season." – Van Pelt, on if dividing up snaps in practice will be a challenge.
Next: Wide receivers.
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.
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