If ever there was a coming football season that screams RUN THE BALL to the Green Bay Packers, it would be this one. The Pack enters the season with its most undistinguished set of wide receivers in recent memory, and a quarterback who will turn 39 in December and is not nearly as mobile as he used to be. Because the receivers are young and inexperienced, that quarterback is probably going to be looking at heavy blitzing and high risk of injury.
By contrast, the Green and Gold will field one of the most impressive running back tandems in the league, supported by, when healthy, an offensive line with at least two All Pro caliber starters. So, if you are truly playing to your strengths, logic would seem to indicate you run, run, run, right?
Well, not if you’re the Packers. Running the ball just doesn’t seem to be in their DNA. Last season, Green Bay threw the ball 593 times, and ran it 446 times. In fact, it’s been nineteen years since the team ran the ball more than it passed the ball during a regular season. That was 2003, when Ahman Green put together that franchise record year, rushing for 1,883 yards and 15 touchdowns. But the ground attack was more than just Green. Najeh Davenport added 420 yards on the ground, and Tony Fisher chipped in 200 more.
The Packers went 10-6, losing to the Eagles in overtime in the divisional round. That was the infamous 4th and 26 game. Green Bay seemingly had the contest wrapped up, leading 17-14 with 1:12 left in regulation. The defense had the Eagles in 4th and 26 on their own 26 yard line. But the defense allowed Donovan McNabb to complete a 28 yard desperation throw to Freddie Mitchell to keep the drive alive. The Eagles went on to kick the game tying field goal, and went on to win 20-17 in OT.
But I digress. Sorry to reopen that scab. That game still tortures me. The point I wanted to make is, a less-than-great Packers team likely went much further than expected that year because of their willingness to commit to the run. Since then, they haven’t even approached a balance between the two. The closest they have come was in 2014, when they passed the ball “only” 101 times more than they ran it. The most lopsided year was 2018, when the team threw a whopping 307 times more than it passed! Small wonder that team went 7-8-1, and coach Mike McCarthy did not survive the season.
The Packers, of course, are far from the only team in the NFL that routinely throws much more than they run. The current rules invite you to pass. The league has added protection to the quarterback, and made it more difficult to defend a receiver and tackle him legally. Green Bay has also been blessed with back-to-back Hall of Fame signal callers, and to take opportunities to throw the ball away from them might seem to be a waste of their talent.
But the 2022 season presents a unique set of circumstances. You are paying your quarterback an average of $50 million per year. He is your franchise. He’s not a kid anymore. It is paramount that you keep him healthy, and that he is able to answer the bell for all seventeen games. The best way to do that is to discourage the pass rush with a persistent, strong running game. Especially when you have a good one. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon ran for a combined 1,602 yards last fall. Run the ball. Make those safes come up. Then use the speed of Christian Watson, or the craftiness of Allen Lazard, or the experience of Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins, to hurt them with the pass.
An idea of what this might look like would be Green Bay’s game plan at Arizona last season. The Packers entered that contest without their three top pass catchers. Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Lazard were all out. Forced to lean heavily on the run, Jones and Dillon rushed for a combined 137 yards against one of the league’s best defenses. When Rodgers did throw, his mark was often Jones out of the backfield, targeted eleven times with seven catches. The Packers put it up 37 times, compared to 34 rushes. That excellent balance enabled Green Bay to pull off a thrilling upset of the undefeated Cards, preserved by Rasul Douglas’ spectacular interception on Arizona’s final drive. They beat a very good team despite having just 184 yards through the air. That’s the kind of offensive template that should work for the Pack in the coming year, at least until all of their new receivers get comfortable.
Let’s be honest. It’s highly unlikely Green Bay’s passing game is going to be as good this year as it has been in the last three under the Matt LaFleur regime. The losses of Adams and MVS will be hard to replace with rookies, and a veteran who has never justified his early first round draft status. That means the run game is going to have to be better. To do that, it has to be used more.
This should be the year Green Bay finally commits to the run. But will they?