Let’s rewind to where the Green Bay Packers’ running game stood at this time a year ago.
It was after the second-round selection of Eddie Lacy, but before anyone knew just how good he was going to be as a rookie. It was after coach Mike McCarthy’s big-letters promise that the run game would be better, but before quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a fractured collarbone that cost him essentially eight games and altered the offensive approach. And it was after the coaching staff had made subtle alterations to the running game scheme, but before DuJuan Harris, the late-season savior of the run game in 2012, was lost for the season and before James Starks showed that he could stay healthy when used as a complementary back.
So it was with that backdrop that we learned that McCarthy didn’t care a whit about whether opposing defenses were going to respect the team’s run game after quarterback Aaron Rodgers had seen a steady diet of two-high safety looks throughout the 2012 season.
We also learned that McCarthy is something of an aficionado of 1990s action movies.
“Did you ever see the movie The Fugitive?” the coach 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 Tommy Lee Jones say?”
McCarthy paused, for the answer.
“Exactly. I. Don’t. Care,” he repeated. “Now, what was your question?”
(Whether he thought defenses would respect the Packers’ run game.)
“I. Don’t. Care. I don’t care,” he 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.”
Fast forward to today. McCarthy can still claim he doesn’t care about whether defenses respect the run, but that’s because he’s getting a healthy Rodgers back, has a terrific clear-cut starter in Lacy, has Starks and Harris as change-up options and the knowledge that defenses will have a tougher time defending both Rodgers and Lacy than U.S. marshal Sam Gerard had tracking Dr. Richard Kimble.
McCarthy’s disappointment last season was that, with Lacy emerging, defenses were indeed having to respect the Packers’ run game. And when Rodgers and Lacy were together in the Packers’ backfield, magic happened. In a 44-31 victory at Minnesota on Oct. 27, the Packers scored on every possession but their final one, when they were running out the clock at the end of the game. Rodgers completed 24 of 29 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns that day (130.6 rating) while Lacy (29 carries, 94 yards, one touchdown) and Starks (seven carries, 57 yards, one touchdown).
And they did it all without three of their most important offensive weapons: Wide receivers Randall Cobb (leg) and James Jones (knee), and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck), all of whom were out with injuries. At that point, the Packers were second in the NFL in yards per game, third in rushing and fifth in passing.
It was after that game that McCarthy was convinced that his offense had the making of his best unit yet – even better than the 2011 group that led the league in scoring and set a franchise record for points.
You know what happened next: Rodgers broke his collarbone, Lacy suddenly started seeing eight- and nine-man boxes from defenses that – gasp! – didn’t respect the Packers’ passing game
“When we came out of the Minnesota game, I thought we really, really hit our stride,” McCarthy said, doing something in his post-season press conference he’s rarely done in nine years as coach – ponder what might’ve been. “We had a couple of bumps there, and we got the no-huddle offense where it needed to be, we changed a lot of the mechanics from the past. I felt very, very good about our offense and our numbers reflected it, too. More importantly, the internal numbers of the things we were trying to get done.
“I hate doing this, especially because I call the plays, [but] I felt that this was going to be the best offense that we’ve ever had here,” McCarthy said. “I thought we were going to go past 2011.”
Now, with a healthy Lacy, who finished eighth in the NFL in rushing with 1,178 yards on 284 carries (4.1-yard average) and 11 touchdowns in essentially 14 regular-season games, and a healthy Rodgers, perhaps the Packers offense will realize the potential McCarthy saw at midseason last year.
“I like the skill guys that we have, I like more than ever our running back situation,” Rodgers said during the team’s June minicamp. “It’s as deep a group as we’ve had in a long time. When you can have guys like Eddie and DuJuan [and] James running the football, some guys behind them who are going to push guys for spots, that’s going to take a lot of the pressure off the receiving corps. If you get 1-on-1 coverage in this league, you’re expected to win that battle most of the time.”
Lacy will still be the star, and both McCarthy and new running backs coach Sam Gash are hoping he can earn the right to be an every-down back, staying on the field as a pass-protector and pass-catcher on third downs.
“He came in last year and obviously his rookie year, things are moving pretty fast,” Gash said. “But at the end of the year, as you can see, things slowed down for him a little bit and he was very productive in all phases.
“He’ll be an every-down back. He’ll play and when he needs a blow, he’ll get a blow, and then when he goes back he goes back to play.”
QUICK READ: RUNNING BACKS