GREEN BAY, Wis. — It makes sense for Packers coach Mike McCarthy to be excited about adding 11 new players to the roster through this year’s draft. That’s an expected response and one that McCarthy understandably displayed this past weekend. But his high level of optimism went well beyond the standard reaction.
As McCarthy continued talking about Green Bay’s two newest running backs, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, he seemed to be in celebration mode. As the Packers’ offensive play-caller, McCarthy already recognized how many more options he’ll have available to him next season.
“I have not had this diverse ability of so many different types of runners and unique athletic ability,” McCarthy said. “Obviously with Lacy being such a big, strong, powerful runner, I think he has a lot better feet than people realize. He’s obviously an accomplished player.
“And Franklin, I don’t know how you cannot be excited about the film he has. And he can really catch the football and do things out of the backfield. I feel very, very good about the group because it’s a very competitive situation in the running back room.”
For years, McCarthy has orchestrated one of the NFL’s best offenses. Since Aaron Rodgers took over as Green Bay’s starting quarterback in 2008, the Packers have finished as no worse than the 10th-highest scoring team in the league. Green Bay led the NFL in scoring in 2011 and has been in the top nine in passing yards in each of those five seasons with Rodgers.
The Packers’ running game, however, has been lacking that entire time. As successful as Rodgers has been throwing the football, McCarthy hasn’t found a good offensive balance. Green Bay has finished in the bottom third of the league in team rushing yards each of the past three years and hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ryan Grant in 2009. In fact, the Packers’ top rusher each of the past two seasons (Alex Green with 464 yards in 2012 and James Starks with 578 yards in 2011) barely even combined for a total of 1,000 rushing yards.
Drafting Lacy in the second round and Franklin in the fourth round should change all that.
“The way we play offense, there will be excellent opportunity,” McCarthy said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing who grabs the rope and runs with it. This will be the most competitive group that we’ve had in my time here at the running back position. I think it’s clearly the most diverse group.”
Lacy and Franklin will join a group of running backs returning from last season, headlined by playoff starter DuJuan Harris, as well as Starks and Green.
“I think we can all clearly be in agreement you can never have enough running backs,” said McCarthy, who started last season with four active running backs. “It’s hard to get through a whole season because of the demands of the position. Just the way we like to play and obviously the way our offense is built around our quarterback and the utilization both in the backfield and out of the backfield, you can never have enough.”
With the Packers using two of their top five picks on running backs, it’s clear that the team viewed this as a position that needed an upgrade.
Lacy, at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, is a power runner. He’s certainly not slow, but his running style is the type that invites contact as he tries to run over defenders. General manager Ted Thompson, who played in the NFL from 1975-84, wasn’t willing to put Lacy in the same category of physicality as his former Houston Oilers teammate Earl Campbell. Thompson added that Packers all-time leading rusher Ahman Green was a “pretty rough character” as well but that he does believe Lacy is “a very physical young man.”
Franklin, much smaller at 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds, isn’t going to run through many players, but he is quicker around the outside. McCarthy spoke glowingly about Franklin and lauded Thompson’s decision to trade up in the fourth round to add another running back.
“I’ve watched Ted Thompson enough times in the draft room that when he goes up, it’s going up for something and it’s really good, and that was definitely the case,” McCarthy said. “(Franklin) is very dynamic player. I’m excited to work with him. Just the little time I had to talk with him on the phone, I think he’s going to be an excellent fit for us.”
McCarthy commented during the Scouting Combine in late February that he’d like to have a running back who can play all three downs. Of Green Bay’s five running backs now on the roster, Lacy appears to be the most capable of handling the three-down responsibility, but McCarthy isn’t going to let any of them slide when it comes to that expectation.
“They all need to play every down,” McCarthy said. “It’s something we talk about as a staff, it’s something we talked about with the players at the positions, the expectations of every position, and specifically with the running back position. It’s important to have players that can play first, second and third down.
“When you’re in a no-huddle offense, to have so many people exchanging and substitutions, the referees will slow the game down, it obviously eliminates the reason why you’re in no-huddle. We train all of our running backs (to be) first-, second- and third-down players, and that will obviously factor into how many opportunities they get.”
Last season, the Packers passed the ball on 56.3 percent of their offensive snaps. That may suggest it was a relatively balanced offense, but many of Green Bay’s opponents played a Cover 2 defense and worried solely about Rodgers beating them in the passing game. The running attempts were there, but finishing 22nd in yards-per-carry average demonstrates that the success was not there.
Lacy sees himself as the answer to those problems.
“I think it brings balance,” Lacy said. “I will allow the defense to not just be able to focus on the passes because there’s a back in the backfield who’s going to have to make them think about the run. And if we can run out of the shotgun, it’ll just make the offense that much more dangerous.”
If Lacy’s bulldozer mentality isn’t working one game, McCarthy has alternatives with the speed of Franklin and Harris. Green and Starks also provide depth in case the other three are struggling.
“If we’re running it good a certain way, then we’re running more often that particular way,” McCarthy said. “That’s something we’ve never shied away from in our offense. We get into a lot of different personnel groups, obviously formation utilization is something we’ve always done. We’ve made some scheme adjustments. Lacy, frankly, will fit into some of these changes we’ve made.”
For a team that hasn’t had a consistent running game in years, the addition of Lacy and Franklin could give Rodgers the complementary backfield piece that’s been missing.