GREEN BAY - 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
San Jose State
How much punishment can Lacy take – and dole out?
The primary reason Lacy dropped on some draft boards was teams' concern with his durability after toe and hamstring injuries. All Lacy, who never carried more than 20 times in a single game in college, did was carry 305 times including playoffs and win NFL offensive rookie of the year honors.
"A lot of teams got to see what kind of player I turned out to be despite the injury reports and things of that nature coming out of college," Lacy said simply.
Nevertheless, his style of play is a bruising, dangerous one. He suffered a concussion on his first carry against Washington in Week 2 on a cheap shot helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Brandon Meriweather and missed the following week's game at Cincinnati, but he also played through a painful late-season ankle injury. The Packers' challenge is to keep him fresh and healthy despite wanting him on the field full-time.
"He's a runner. Runners run," running backs coach Sam Gash said when asked if he was worried about the punishment Lacy takes. "Every guy that plays has to a little recklessness, you're a little off-kilter. The guys that are the best runners harness that craziness, that edginess, that recklessness — they harness it and try to channel it."
On the rise
At least, Harris was on the rise at the end of the 2012 season, when he rescued a going-nowhere run game for the Packers just weeks after he'd been working at a used-car lot in Jacksonville. Now, after a wasted season with a knee injury that never went away, worsened in an Aug. 23 preseason game and required minor surgery but length rehab, Harris is back in the mix. He also has an increased opportunity in the wake of news in June that 2013 fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin's career is over because of a neck injury.
Player to watch
If he can stay healthy – a caveat not reserved for him alone – Lacy has all the makings of a field-tilting player for years to come. From his feet, agility and balance to his sheer size and the violence with which he runs, he is a star in waiting.
"I really don't see a ceiling on him at all because he has some of the gifts of the greats," Gash said. "He's big. He's fast. He's athletic. He has good hands. He wants to work. I really don't see a ceiling for him right now and I don't think you will for a really long time because he's a young soul, a young spirit. He comes out every day and you get this vibrant kid who comes out ready to work."
Said Lacy: "I feel more comfortable now. I've had a chance to be in the offense. I made a lot of mistakes last season. I'm way more comfortable with those mistakes that I made and just feel as though I'm more comfortable this year than coming in last year."
The loss of Franklin, whom the coaches felt could give them something in the screen game and other passes to the backs, is a blow. While he was also the leading candidate to return kickoffs – something Harris might end up doing now – he also seemed to have the skill set to be the third-down back if he could master blitz-pickups, something he struggled with early in camp last year. Now, the job is even more wide open than before. Lacy seems like the logical choice to keep on the field full-time, but he'll have to catch his breath once in awhile. There's always Kuhn, the old reliable fullback whose block on Julius Peppers made the game-winning Aaron Rodgers-to-Randall Cobb touchdown pass possible in the regular-season finale at Chicago.
The Packers entered last season having gone an astonishing 43 regular-season games without an individual 100-yard rusher. That streak, the longest in the NFL at the time, lasted one more game. Then Starks went off for 132 yards against Washington following Lacy's first-carry concussion, Franklin had a 100-yard game the following week against Cincinnati and Lacy finally got over the century mark on Oct. 13 at Baltimore. In all, the Packers had six 100-yard individual rushing performances last season – tied for second-most in the league – and it marked only the fifth time the team has had three different 100-yard rushers in the same season. It also happened in 1961 (Paul Hornung, Tom Moore, Jim Taylor), 1979 (Steve Atkins, Terdell Middleton, Nate Simpson), 1985 (Jessie Clark, Gerry Ellis, Eddie Lee Ivery) and 2006 (Ahman Green, Noah Herron, Vernand Morency).
"The number of carries, it really doesn't matter to me. I'll take whatever they're willing to give me. Like I said, every opportunity means a lot. I'm going to run the ball as if it's my last play. and whether it's 300 or 250 whatever the number is, I'm going to give every carry everything I have." – Lacy, who carried 284 times in the regular season last year, on his workload.
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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