Injuries kept Packers offense from being McCarthy’s best ever

Packers running back Eddie Lacy broke franchise rookie records with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Mike McCarthy realized what the Green Bay Packers’ collection of offensive talent was capable of during the 2013 season, he felt confident. Very confident.

"I felt that this was going to be the best offense that we’ve ever had here," McCarthy said at the end of the season. "I thought we were going to go past 2011."

Being better than the 2011 Packers offense would have meant somehow outscoring their NFL-best 35.0 points per game from that year, and gaining more than the 405.1-yard average they accomplished during a 15-1 season. Yet, it seems McCarthy had plenty of logical reasons to believe the 2013 offense could have been even better.

In 2011, James Starks was Green Bay’s leading rusher with 578 yards. That’s not exactly elite running-back status. Not unless elite means ranking 38th in the league in individual rushing yards.

This season, rookie Eddie Lacy took the NFL by storm. After sliding down a full round on draft weekend, Lacy added a dynamic to the Packers offense that’s been missing for years. Even though he missed nearly two full games with a concussion — which came on what was later deemed an illegal hit by Washington’s Brandon Meriweather — Lacy broke multiple franchise rookie records with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

"Eddie Lacy is an impact player," McCarthy said. "When you have impact players coming into your program, obviously it makes a difference. Eddie definitely did that. Just the way we knew we were going to commit to the run game, I thought the combination of Eddie and James Starks — and I wish we would’ve had Johnathan Franklin to keep that going — was as good as we’ve ever had, I know, in my time here. Eddie was the lead dog doing that. I can’t say enough about his performance."

Lacy will likely be named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, but it wasn’t just rookies that he outperformed. Lacy was third in the entire league in rushing touchdowns, eighth in rushing yards and was one of only two running backs to fumble just once while carrying the ball more than 250 times.

"What’s exciting about Eddie is he’s green," McCarthy added. "He’s got a lot to learn, but there’s things that he can do much better just to be an every-down back. I’m not only excited about what he just accomplished as a rookie, but really moving forward I think he can be even better."

That’s incredibly high praise from McCarthy, but Lacy production’s this season makes it nearly impossible to argue against it. Watching Lacy throughout the season also made obvious why McCarthy was feeling like he had his best offense yet.

"You guys (the media) got on me about running the ball forever," McCarthy said. "We run it as good as anybody in the league (now)."

Adding Lacy to an offense with Aaron Rodgers, who McCarthy described as "the best quarterback in football," was the final piece to an already top-ranked group.

Take away that "best quarterback in football" for eight weeks, though, and an offense that could’ve been McCarthy’s most prodigious failed to meet those lofty expectations. While still posting relatively impressive numbers, Green Bay’s offense ranked eighth in the NFL this season in points and third in total yards. More importantly, the Packers went from a 5-2 team near the midpoint of the season — right before Rodgers got hurt — to an 8-8-1 team that was knocked out of the playoffs during wild-card weekend.

"Clearly the most challenging season," McCarthy said, comparing 2013 to his first seven years as Green Bay’s head coach. "I look back at my first year (2006), there were points of that season, the first game, 1-4, there were certain points in that season I felt like I got ran over by a truck. This year, it just seemed like it never stopped.

"2010 (the Super Bowl season) was different. I can remember sitting here with (general manager) Ted (Thompson) on Mondays and Tuesday and a number of times we didn’t even have 42, 43 players that were going to be ready to play with (needing) 46 on Sunday. We had a number of those this year, but there’s just so much change. I thought our special teams was extremely challenged this year with all the change there.

"Yeah, this was clearly the most challenging."

It also didn’t make it easy on McCarthy that the Packers lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a season-ending injury and didn’t have 2012 leading receiver Randall Cobb for 10 games.

It all accumulated to the point that a season with such promise became a season that ended sooner than any season in Green Bay has since 2009. But with Rodgers just 30 years old, Cobb coming back healthy, Lacy ready to build on what he did as a rookie and an offensive line that improved greatly over the past year, McCarthy might have his best offense ever a year later than he expected.

"I’d put our offense up against anybody’s," McCarthy said. "We’ll play anywhere — cold, hot, rain, snow. We’re built the right way."

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