In his eight years as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach, Mike McCarthy has always picked his spots to be bold during his press conferences – more often than not, he does his best to avoid saying anything that could somehow put his team at a competitive disadvantage, sound like criticism of one of his own players or create a story where there isn’t one.
But back in June, McCarthy didn’t hold back. After years of hearing about how he either didn’t like to run the football, wasn’t interested in it or simply paid lipservice to it, McCarthy delivered a proclamation about it.
“We’ll be better, I promise you that,” McCarthy said after the team’s final organized team activity practice of the offseason. “You can write that down. In big letters.”
Seven games into the season, those big letters are translating into big numbers in the run game. And opposing defenses may never look at quarterback Aaron Rodgers or the Packers’ offense the same way again.
After rushing for 182 yards – tying the team’s season high – during Sunday night’s 44-31 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field, the Packers are averaging 141.4 rushing yards per game (fourth in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per carry (tied for third in the NFL).
Against the Vikings, rookie Eddie Lacy ran 29 times for 94 yards and one touchdown, while veteran James Starks added 57 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in his first action since suffering a Week 3 knee injury at Cincinnati on Sept. 22.
“I just think it’s cool to be able to add another dimension,” said Lacy, who has rushed for 395 yards over the past four games since suffering a concussion on his first carry against Washington in Week 2 on Sept. 15. “We're still going to pass the ball here. (Rodgers) is a great quarterback, and I’m happy to be alongside of him. We’re just going to continue doing what we have to do to continue to win.”
At their current pace, the Packers would have their most ground production under McCarthy by a wide margin. But when asked Monday during his usual day-after-the-game press conference whether it was gratifying to see his plan come to fruition, McCarthy took exception.
“Has it come to fruition? We’re not even halfway through the season,” McCarthy replied. “We’re getting better.”
Since McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006, the highest the Packers have ever ranked in rushing in the 32-team NFL is 14th in 2009 (117.8), and only twice – in 2008 and 2009, when Ryan Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons – have the Packers finished higher than 20th in rushing. Last season, the Packers averaged 106.4 rushing yards per game (No. 20 in the league) and 3.9 yards per carry (22nd in the league).
In McCarthy's first seven years and 112 regular-season games as coach, the Packers rushed for 125 or more yards in a game 27 times, or 24.1 percent of the time. So far this season, they’ve rushed for 125 or more yards in five of their games, or 71.4 percent of the time.
In addition, during those 112 regular-season games from 2006 through 2012, the Packers rushed for 180 or more yards in a game five times. So far this season, they’ve turned the trick three times. In fact, before this year, the Packers had not surpassed 180 rushing yards in a game in three seasons; their last 180-plus rushing day had been in 2009, when they had 202 yards in a 31-3 victory at Cleveland.
Plus, after going 44 consecutive regular-season games without an 100-yard rusher, the Packers have had three of them (Starks, Lacy and No. 3 back Johnathan Franklin) in seven games.
“They’re statistics. There’s one statistic that counts and we’re working our way towards it, and we’re a long way from that,” McCarthy said. “Running the ball’s part of it. We’re getting better as a football team, particularly on offense, the way we’re playing, we’re utilizing our personnel. … That’s the way I look at it.”
And what exactly would qualify as his promise coming to fruition?
“When we’re talking about it in February, right?” McCarthy replied, referring to Super Bowl XLVIII. “Isn’t that what this is all about?”
Indeed it is. But in the meantime, it’s hard to deny what a difference the running game has made in the Packers’ attack. While Rodgers remains the focal point of the offense, he is seeing opposing defenses approach the Packers differently. While playing two safeties deep to guard against the big-play passing game remains a key part of defensive game plans, Rodgers said the run game is “definitely changing the way teams are playing us.”
Asked after Sunday night’s victory if the run game has exceeded his expectations, Rodgers replied: “I think that’s safe to say. It definitely has. Eddie’s done a great job, and then to get James back this week, he’s a slasher in every sense of that word. He made some great cuts, (had a) big touchdown run for us. Eddie was just pounding it. He’s tough to bring down, he’s like a bowling ball in there. I’m really proud of the job those guys did, but the offensive line again deserves a lot of credit.”
Actually, there’s plenty of credit to go around. Not only are the Packers getting better execution from their offensive line and have better talent at running back, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements said they have given Rodgers more responsibility in the run game.
“We’ve put more on the plate of our quarterback and he’s handled it very well,” McCarthy said. “I always worry about putting too much on the quarterback’s plate because at the end of the day he’s not paid to make run adjustments. He’s paid to throw touchdowns.”
Rodgers is doing that, too. After completing 24 of 29 passes for 285 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions (130.6 passer rating) against the Vikings while also getting into the running act with four scrambles for 34 yards, Rodgers has completed 167 of 249 passes for 2,191 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions (108.0 rating) on the season.
But in the running game, he’s also making decisions on when and how to run the ball. McCarthy has long had as a component in his offense run/pass option plays, on which Rodgers decides at the line of scrimmage whether to make it a run or pass play. But this season, Rodgers is also making adjustments on run calls.
According to Clements, on many run plays, Rodgers comes to the line of scrimmage with a menu of variations on a run call and has the responsibility of selecting the best one.