It’s a tease every year. Invariably, at some point before the season kicks off, Green Bay Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy will speak about how the Packers will emphasize the running game. As McCarthy told Packers.com regarding the running game earlier this offseason, “We’ll be better, I promise you. You can write that down.”
Most followers of the Packers know to take any such pronouncements with a grain of salt. But the question may have a little more juice this year: Will the Packers actually commit to the run in 2013?
The answer lies within a few clues.
The Packers outbid the San Francisco 49ers to acquire veteran tight end Matthew Mulligan. Mulligan, most recently a member of the St. Louis Rams, is a blocking specialist and adds little to the passing game by virtue of his comparatively sluggish foot speed. The Packers paid $820,000 for one year of Mulligan’s strength and tenaciousness against defenders. This occurred about one month after the Packers declined to improve their $700,000 offer to Tom Crabtree, who, at the time, was Green Bay’s best blocking tight end. Clearly, the Packers aim to improve their run blocking.
For the first time in a long time, the Packers invested two draft choices in running backs — second-round selection Eddie Lacy from Alabama and fourth-round selection Johnathan Franklin from UCLA. The last time the Packers picked two running backs in the same draft was 1995, when Ron Wolf selected fullback William Henderson in the third round and running back Travis Jervey in the fifth. In between that time, there are several years where the Packers selected no running backs. Only one, Brandon Jackson in 2007, was a first or second-round pick. Jackson was the No. 63 overall selection.
It’s too early to tell what kind of professionals Lacy and Franklin will be, but their arrival as a pair of high-to-mid-round selections from the same draft indicates a major shift in the modus operandi of the Green Bay Packers, going back to the early Ron Wolf days and before.
Just looking at recent history, the Packers never run more than they pass — under any circumstance. In 2011, ESPN calculated that the Packers had a ratio of 48 percent run vs. 52 percent pass on first down, 40 percent run vs. 60 percent pass on second down and 21 percent run vs. 79 percent pass on third downs. The Packers ranked 26th in run attempts in 2011.
The Packers’ overall run/pass ratio in their Super Bowl season of 2010 was 42.10 percent run vs. 57.90 percent pass. This is consistent with the rest of the league, which was 43 percent run vs. 57 percent pass over the course of the entire 2010 season among all teams.
In 2012, the Packers were 20th in rushing yards and 16th in rushing attempts. For as pass-happy as the Packers seem, this reflects a closer proximity to the NFL average than many might expect. If the Packers do indeed commit more to the run, it’s not out of the question to see Green Bay veer into the top third of the league in rushing yards and attempts.
Developing a stronger running game is about creating more opportunities for the Packers’ offense. A credible running game will take pressure off Aaron Rodgers and will help keep him upright. The Packers allowed 51 sacks last year, second-worst in the league. Green Bay’s predictability on offense not only created routine down-and-distance issues for Rodgers on second and third down, but it also made it harder for receivers to find open spots in the secondary as opposing safeties stayed back in coverage.
The Packers have not had a 100-yard rusher since week five of the 2010 season. If the Packers are serious about committing to the run in 2013, this dry spell should end. The NFL has changed to the point that passing yards — and teams that excel at passing — are more common than not. It looks like the Packers are ready to commit to the run for the first time in a long time, but do not look for them to become a “run-first” team. Those days are gone.