Did the Green Bay Packers' 2011 season prove, once and for all, the value of an established 1-2 punch in the offensive backfield?
Or did it demonstrate how overblown that theory is?
That's the question I found myself asking while reading Tom Silverstein's analysis of the Packers' current backfield roster dilemma. In short, Silverstein sees three running backs with assured roster spots. Veteran Ryan Grant isn't one of them.
It's hard to imagine James Starks, John Kuhn or rookie Alex Green not making the final roster. It's been assumed that Grant would be part of that group as well, provided he returned healthy from an ankle injury that cost him most of last season. But the preseason performance of second-year player Dimitri Nance has at least given the Packers a more difficult decision than anticipated.
Nance is young and fresh-legged and, just as important, almost $4 million cheaper than Grant. Rare is the team that keeps four tailbacks unless one is a full-time returner or depth issues at other positions provide that flexibility. The Packers, however, could make reasonable arguments for keeping as many as seven receivers and maybe five tight ends. Something has to give at one of their offensive skill positions.
Normally, I would echo what coach Mike McCarthy said this spring: "If you look at history, you look at our history, running back is a position that you really don't have enough of. We play in the elements. Winning games in December and January outdoors, it's a big factor. We'll definitely make a conscious effort to always improve our running game."
Based on that theory, the Packers have already paid Grant a $1.75 million roster bonus this summer. But Silverstein's story hints at another element: Whether Grant has re-established himself as the same back he was before the injury. Here's how Silverstein put it: "Grant has missed some running opportunities this summer, including a poor decision on a draw play against the [Arizona] Cardinals, but he's also the kind of player who gets better with carries. The coaches might be seeing things others don't in the way Grant has run."
Grant has 36 yards on eight carries this preseason and figures to get extended playing time in Friday's preseason game at Indianapolis. If he hasn't fully recovered, it's not by much and probably perceptible only to a football professional.
Would something less than the pre-injury Grant be worth jettisoning in favor of, say, Nance? The bigger question is whether you trust the oft-injured Starks to be a reliable and weekly competitor. Starks had only 29 carries in the 2010 regular season and missed last week's preseason game because of an ankle injury.
Grant's injury left the Packers' running game undermanned for the final 15 games of the 2010 regular season. That they still qualified for the playoffs was either the result of the extraordinary compensatory efforts from other players or a comment on how unnecessary a deep backfield is in today's pass-happy NFL. That's a chicken-and-egg dilemma the Packers will have to solve for themselves.
Another question for the Packers to consider: Was their postseason offensive improvement the result of Starks' presence or simply the faith McCarthy displayed in him?
In the end, I think it should require a perfect storm of circumstances for the Packers to feel comfortable jettisoning Grant. They'll need to be convinced of Starks' durability and confident that Kuhn, Green and Nance could provide credible performances during any short-term absence. They'll need to have a better way of using the roster spot, like keeping a promising young tight end or receiver they would otherwise lose through waivers. And, frankly, they'll have to agree internally that Grant is no longer a 20-carry back.
Without that combination, releasing or trading a proven running back like Grant seems like an awfully risky proposition to me. You?