In the early days of Mike McCarthy's tenure with the Green Bay Packers, it was fashionable to question his running game and contrast its production with the passing of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. The Packers' recent success amid the NFL's passing explosion has all but stifled such squawking, so it was notable last month when McCarthy brought up the issue unprompted at the NFL scouting combine.
Although he didn't provide much detail, McCarthy made clear he wants more from his running game in 2012.
"We feel we're maxing out the drop-back game in normal down and distance," McCarthy said. "Are we maxing out the run game in normal down and distance? I think it'd be safe to say no as we stand here today. Those are the types of things we are going to take a close look at."
I think we can all agree the Packers' running game has been an afterthought in recent seasons. As the first chart illustrates, they ranked at the bottom of most statistical categories -- including, importantly, attempts -- in 2011. McCarthy said he is "not really worried about how many times we run the ball" but plans to change "how we run the ball."
The second chart shows the Packers' run-pass ratios by down in 2011, one that -- like most teams -- progressively leans toward the pass as you move from first to third down.
McCarthy declined to explain because he hasn't presented his ideas to players yet. My guess is that whatever changes he has in mind -- possibly using different kinds of running plays in certain situations -- won't be obvious to the casual observer. To me, the proverbial elephant in the room is not how often the Packers run the ball or what kind of plays they use. It's who the Packers are going to hand the ball off to in the first place.
As of this moment, it's difficult to count on either of the Packers' top two tailbacks to be a feature back in 2012. Ryan Grant is 29 and appears set to test the free-agent market, while James Starks has quite frankly missed too much time with injuries to merit the Packers' full trust.
The third chart shows every Packers running back who had a carry last season. Alex Green, a third-round draft pick last season, is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Brandon Saine, who played on 69 snaps last season, was a practice-squad promotion.
Taken altogether, the running back position rises to one of the Packers' more underrated offseason areas of need. It's important for McCarthy to perform his micro-analysis and make the kind of subtle adjustments he's referring to, but its impact will be limited if the Packers don't address the personnel side of the issue.
Last month, McCarthy used words like "very consistent" and "solid" to describe Grant's season. Addressing Starks, he said: "James' availability, that's his issue. When James is available and he's playing week in and week out, he's a young player that gets better. But when he doesn't play he’s not going to make the progress. I think James is a very talented guy, very bright future, but his availability wasn't where you’d like it to be."
Starks played in 13 games last season, but knee and ankle injuries he suffered in Week 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers limited him to 13 carries over the Packers' final six regular-season games. In 2010, you'll remember he made only three regular-season appearances before taking over the position in the playoffs.
So over the course of two seasons, Starks has had two limited spans of good health and production: The Packers' four-game playoff push in 2010 and the first 10 games of 2011. Is that enough to be counted on as a lead back in 2012? Based on McCarthy's comments, I don't think so.
It's quite possible the Packers could make a committee system work with Starks, John Kuhn and perhaps Green or Saine. And I would agree with those who don't want to see the Packers devote too many additional resources to their offense, not when their defense crashed in 2011 and could use depth and upgrades at several positions. Perhaps McCarthy's schematic analysis is designed to minimize the need for additional personnel.
But this isn't the time for committing to a committee system, not as we stand on the doorstep of the NFL's player acquisition period. Committees are what teams settle on, not what they plan for. And at the moment, their personnel situation in the backfield merits at least an attempt to enhance. If other priorities ultimately trump it, so be it. We'll soon see if the Packers agree.