GREEN BAY, Wis. — Eddie Lacy has been nervous before every game he’s ever played in. In the minutes leading up to the BCS National Championship eight months ago when he rushed for 140 yards and scored two touchdowns, Lacy had butterflies. Throughout his football life it has always taken him a few plays until the jitters go away.
As Lacy stepped on the field for his NFL debut in San Francisco, the Green Bay Packers’ second-round pick — and rookie starting running back — was more nervous than he’d ever been. Unlike his typical routine of needing to get hit a couple times before feeling somewhat relaxed, the pressure-packed situation was weighing on Lacy longer than usual as he carried the ball early and often against the 49ers.
Less than four minutes into the second quarter, the fifth rushing attempt of Lacy’s career came with a very important lesson: A fumble gets you benched.
“He was definitely in a timeout,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said, utilizing a punishment technique he had used with his three children.
Lacy spent the remainder of the first half on the sideline. Lacy’s fumble was recovered by the defense and set up San Francisco only 14 yards from the end zone, resulting five plays later in a touchdown.
“Being on the sideline is a chance for you to regroup,” Lacy said. “Then it’s all about how you respond to negative plays.”
Lacy obviously knew he made a costly mistake by allowing Navarro Bowman to knock the ball away. But in order for that to sink in even more for the 23-year-old, the Packers’ coaching staff decided that immediately putting him back on the field wasn’t the direction to go.
“I hope he wasn’t relaxed (on the sideline); I hope we sent a message to him that that’s unacceptable,” Van Pelt said. “It’s a tough lesson for any guy to learn, but it did give him time to cool off and, not be a spectator, but relax a little bit and watch James (Starks) do it.
“It’s unfortunate he had to sit by me on three drives, but that’s the way it goes.”
The message in Green Bay’s running backs room is ‘know when the journey is over.’ Basically, if there are no extra yards to be gained, go down. Lacy didn’t do that, and it was one of the main causes of the fumble.
“Eddie needs to detail his work,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I don’t want to say he was nervous, but he just needs to clean some things up. He’s young, it’s his first time really playing in the no-huddle type of situation, going that fast, we have a lot on his plate.
“The details — that’s the difference between winning and losing in this league.”
There are many aspects that McCarthy and the coaches want Lacy to focus on as they try to help him detail his work. Writing down notes in meetings, taking care of his body, having consistent and solid footwork (which is “critical,” Van Pelt said), knowing where blockers are going and understanding the leverage of the defenders is all part of it.
“We’re just trying to get Eddie to be a pro, teach him to be a pro,” Van Pelt said. “It’s going to be a growing thing with Eddie.”
Van Pelt added that he didn’t give Lacy any minus grades in his run reads in the Packers’ Week 1 loss, so that’s one positive for the young running back to take away in terms of detailing his work.
There were other positives for Lacy, too, especially in the second half. After Green Bay went to Starks and then John Kuhn in the backfield to close out the first half following the fumble, Lacy took his spot back on the first drive of the third quarter.
“I kind of told him right before half, ‘OK, get your mind right; we’re coming out in the second half and we’re going to ride you a little bit,'” Van Pelt said. “We went right back to him.”
And Lacy delivered. He rushed for 26 yards in one series alone and capped it off with his first-ever NFL touchdown.
“It was cool,” Lacy said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a good feeling.”
Lacy gave the ball to Packers equipment manager ‘Red’ Batty who packed it away for the flight back to Green Bay. Now, that ball is never too far from Lacy.
“It’s on my bed,” Lacy said. “I sleep with it.”
Lacy’s overall stat line in his debut didn’t look impressive. Rushing for 41 yards on 14 carries (2.9 average) isn’t going to turn around a Packers run game that hasn’t finished better than 20th in NFL rankings in the past three seasons. But there was enough improvement in the second half that had Lacy’s teammates excited.
“I think he’s great,” Kuhn said. “I think he’s a great, young, talented running back. I think he’s only going to get better with time. I told a couple other guys, he’s ahead of the curve. He’s not the normal rookie you see at this point in time in their career. The more confidence he gets, the better he’s going to be. So we’re trying to get him that confidence as early as possible.”
The season-ending knee injury to running back DuJuan Harris didn’t allow McCarthy to use the one-two punch with Lacy that was in the team’s original offensive plans. With Lacy as Green Bay’s clear-cut top running back now, McCarthy has altered his expectations.
“My goal for him is to be a three-down player and keep him in there and keep him playing,” McCarthy said. “When he’s in there, he’s a fine young football player.”
If Lacy continues to improve his understanding of the protection adjustments, which Van Pelt specifically mentioned as a point of emphasis for him, the team believes the 230-pound running back can be an effective every-down player, even as a rookie.
“As a competitor, that would mean the world,” Lacy said. “You want to be in there. That’s your job. You want to do it. And anytime you can be on the field, that’s where you want to be.”