GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy is going on eight years of press conferences as the Green Bay Packers head coach, and while he’s as good a storyteller as there is in one-on-one settings, he’s does not particularly enjoy his time in the Lambeau Field auditorium – or behind any podium, regardless of location.
Nevertheless, McCarthy has delivered some unforgettable lines from there over the years.
There was the postgame press briefing in December 2010, moments after his team had fought valiantly against the mighty New England Patriots on the road in a seemingly must-win game that backup quarterback Matt Flynn started in place of a concussed Aaron Rodgers. (“Every time we line up, we expect to win, period. And we didn't get it done tonight. I don't care what you guys think. We came here to win. We're nobody's underdog.”)
There was the postgame press conference a few weeks earlier inside the Metrodome’s cramped visitors’ locker room, after his team had thrashed Brett Favre and the Vikings, 31-3. (“We’re a good football team, we always knew we were a good football team. We’ve got our foot on the gas, hands on the wheel, we’re looking straight ahead.”)
And, of course, there was McCarthy’s line during the ugly summer of 2008, after a marathon late-night meeting with iconic quarterback Brett Favre, hours before Favre would be traded to the New York Jets. (“The football team's moving forward. The train has left the station, whatever analogy you want.”)
On Wednesday, McCarthy might’ve added another one to the list. For as much as the Packers’ need to run the football has been discussed this offseason – fueled by a reconfiguring of the team’s offensive line and the drafting of not one but two high-profile running backs in second-round pick Eddie Lacy of Alabama and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin of UCLA – McCarthy made it clear that all the talk about the running game is forgetting the team’s primary offensive objective: Scoring points. A lot of them.
“Running the football is important. There's no question about it,” McCarthy said after the second and final practice of the three-day mandatory minicamp. (The camp will conclude with a team-building exercise Thursday). “At the end of the day, it's the offense's responsibility to score points. You have to score as many points as you possibly can. That's the way we've always put together the game plan.
“Running the football … there's a reason why you do it. At the end of the day, our job ultimately is to put the ball in the end zone. I don't play keep away. I think there's two schools of thought when you play football. Some guys like to shorten the game, play great defense, play field position and try not to lose it. I want to play as fast as I can and throw as many punches as I possibly can and beat you as bad as I can. That's the way we play."
To paraphrase ol’ Kenny Bania, That’s gold, Mike. Gold!
Because here’s the thing: There’s no denying that the Packers want and need more production from their run game. Lacy and Franklin join a running back group that saw Alex Green, Cedric Benson, James Starks, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris all lead the team in rushing in various games and has gone an NFL-high 43 consecutive regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher. The Packers’ running backs have combined for 12 rushing touchdowns and are averaging just 3.8 yards per rush over the last three seasons – the fewest in the NFL for both categories.
McCarthy was even able to joke about it when he was asked about the possibility, as Rodgers recently suggested, that wide receiver Randall Cobb could catch 100 passes this season. “I don't do projections. I hope so. I hope they all catch 100 balls,” McCarthy replied. Pause, for effect. “Well, we've got to run the ball, of course ... “
The biggest reason the Packers have to run the ball – and do it effectively – is the steady diet of Cover-2 defenses they saw last season. Although quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo asserted Tuesday that the Packers didn’t see two-deep coverages non-stop last season, they saw more of it than they’ve ever seen since Rodgers ascended to the starting job in 2008, after the train indeed left the station.
“We keep track of it by situation. It was higher. Maybe not as much as advertised. But it was higher,” McAdoo said. “A lot of teams have the philosophy that they’re not going let him win deep. They’re going to force you to go the long way, to get completions, to be consistent, to eliminate penalties and go the long way. It’s hard to do that.”
Running the ball more often – and more productively – would help, and McCarthy has acknowledged that by pointing out repeatedly (without delving into specifics) that he’s altered the team’s approach in the run game for 2013. That would make sense given the limited productivity last season, when Green led the team with 135 carries for a paltry 464 yards (3.4-yard average). Not since Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009 have the Packers gotten consistent production from a single ballcarrier.
In 11 of the Packers’ 18 games last season, one of their running backs carried the ball at least 15 times. Of those 11 games, only four times did that running back average 4.0 yards per carry or more: Benson did it twice (20 carries for 81 yards against Chicago on Sept. 13; 18 carries for 84 yards against New Orleans on Sept. 30, the week before his season-ending foot injury); Grant did it once (20 carries for 80 yards against Tennessee on Dec. 23); and James Starks did it once (15 carries for 66 yards against Minnesota on Dec. 2, before suffering a knee injury and never playing another snap the rest of the year).
The Packers’ most productive running back, in terms of yards per carry, was Harris, who ran 34 times for 157 yards (4.6-yard average) in the final four regular-season games, including a 14-carry, 70-yard performance against the Vikings in the regular-season finale.
“We’ve got to be effective runners. We’ve tweaked our run game a little bit and we’re doing some stuff that we think will help us improve, regardless of the runners,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “So I’m excited about the run game.”
Whether that excitement translates to concern for opposing defenses remains to be seen, but if teams decide to try to stop the run game with only six defenders in the box, thereby daring the interception-averse Rodgers to try to go deep, the offense won’t operate at optimal efficiency.
“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to move the ball. We have weapons both in the running attack and the passing attack, and if teams want to play us a 2-shell defense, we’re going to have to be able to run them out of it,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “If we’re able to do that, get them into some 1-high looks, that’s to our advantage.”
In McCarthy’s punching metaphor, think of productive runs as body blows that set up the knockout right crosses or left hooks down the field through the air. Running the ball isn’t meant to be a rope-a-dope to pass possession time to keep the defense off the field; it’s supposed to complement a passing game that McCarthy wants to see score at the clip it did in 2011, when the Packers put up the second-most points in a single season in NFL history.
Even though the defense suffered that year as a result, facing teams that were in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ words “in a 2-minute drill all game long,” McCarthy sounded Wednesday like a coach who wants to run the ball better so his offense can throw the ball even better than it already does.
“If you (as a defense) can tackle the running back with six in the box and keep him to 2, 3 yards a carry, you can sit in Cover-2 all day and play the pass,” Van Pelt said. “What we’ve got to do is make them honor our run game and have to bring an extra guy down. That’s what we’re shooting for.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating for the quarterback to run the ball against Cover-2 for no gain or 2 yards. If we have good numbers, we should have good angles in the run game and explosive gains. But it’s everything coming together – receivers doing a great job blocking, the line, and the back feeling it the right way. But if we have good numbers, we should be successful in the run game.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
There are no games scheduled for today.
There are no games scheduled for today.