GREEN BAY, Wis. — In an offseason that’s been filled with questions about the Green Bay Packers’ unproductive running game of recent years, coach Mike McCarthy finally felt comfortable enough to strongly proclaim his confidence that the 2013 season won’t be like the three that preceded it.
“We’ll be better, I can promise you that,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “You can write that down. Big letters.”
Despite the overall success that the Packers have had, including a Super Bowl win in 2010 followed by consecutive appearances in the divisional round of the playoffs, McCarthy has not found a way to balance the team’s offense.
Last season, Green Bay ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per carry. And that was the best team performance the Packers have had running the ball since 2009. It was even worse for McCarthy’s offense in 2011 (27th in yards, 26th in average) and 2010 (24th in yards, 25th in average).
“I think there’s going to be some changes,” tight end Matthew Mulligan said. “I think that as good of an organization as the Packers are, you don’t stay in that bottom third (of the NFL in a statistical category). You just don’t do that. You know that maybe potentially it was a weakness this past season, but it won’t be this year.”
The signing of Mulligan — a proven run-blocking tight end — in early April was one small step in getting Green Bay back to rushing effectively. The more splashy moves came later that month in the draft when McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson decided that the team needed impact-type players in the backfield.
Instead of just bringing back DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green and hoping that things change, the Packers used two of their top draft picks on highly regarded running backs. With Alabama’s Eddie Lacy surprisingly still available late in the second round, Green Bay took him off the board at No. 61. Later, when UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin also kept sliding, the Packers traded up in the fourth round to select him.
Watching a powerhouse like Lacy and a dynamic player like Franklin go through OTA practices and minicamp, McCarthy had seen enough to commit to his rather bold statement. The two of them have also impressed quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who hopes that having a threat at running back will take some pressure off of him in the passing game.
“I like the young running backs,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “I think they’re different players. Eddie is a bigger back. He can bring some power in the run game. And seeing Johnathan, he’s a shifty guy, he’s got some moves in the open field (and) he’s a potentially three-down back.
“It gives us an interesting backfield look.”
Lacy and Franklin have both been cautious in their public statements to not make any guarantees as to their contributions as rookies.
“I can only bring what I was drafted to bring in and that’s what I’ve been doing pretty much my whole life,” Lacy said. “I don’t plan on changing the way I run and I don’t think that they expect me to be able to change it. They just want me to be able to come in and do what I was drafted to do.”
Franklin had been told about McCarthy’s promise of an improved rushing attack, but after letting out a brief smile, he too brushed it off.
“We can’t get caught up into what’s going on in the paper and everywhere,” Franklin said. “We have to get better every day. That’s our only focus. Take a step and get better.”
While McCarthy is feeling good about his group of running backs, it’s far from determined as to which one will get the majority of carries this upcoming season. Each of the five of them has a different claim to the job. Green led the team in rushing yards last season. Starks was going to be the starting running back in 2012 before injuries derailed him. Harris was the starter in the two playoff games. Lacy is the highest-drafted running back in the Thompson era. Franklin was valuable enough that the Packers traded up to get him; a rare Thompson move.
“We’re all friends,” Lacy said. “We compete. If we come off (the field) and somebody made a mistake, the other guy explains it to him and we try not to make that same mistake again. It’s not a competition. Well, I mean, it is, but it’s not like one person is trying to hold back information from another.”
For now, McCarthy is making Lacy and Franklin really earn their spot on the depth chart. In all of the team’s offseason practices, it has been either Green or Starks next to Rodgers and the starters. Harris has been unavailable to practice due to a cyst that was found and removed near his heart.
“It’s a learning process and as a rookie you don’t know everything, and those guys do,” Lacy said. “(It’s helpful) to get a chance to sit back and watch them and watch how things go and operate. When we get our shot, we’ll just slowly work our way into it.”
The Packers need to deliver on McCarthy’s promise. Green Bay’s running game can’t spend another season ranked in the bottom third of the NFL. Rodgers can be even better if opposing defenses don’t solely set up their game plan on stopping him. It all works together, and a significant improvement in rushing would end the Packers’ recent trend of a fairly one-dimensional offense.
“I hope we run the ball,” Mulligan said. “I’ve seen some good things from the rookie running backs, and then the guys that are here, too. I think that people don’t know this, but I think we’re really deep at running back.
“It’s not just one guy (who can fix it); it’s 11 guys on the field at a time. We all must work together. One guy isn’t going to make the biggest difference, because if everybody isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, it doesn’t work. You can bring in a Pro Bowl guy, but if guys aren’t working together, it doesn’t matter. I think this group, from what I’ve seen this offseason, is real comfortable together.