Fourteen years after the Green Bay Packers of 1996 won it all with talented and high-character people in the backfield, their counterparts of today offer no apologies for the cast of backs that will be seeking the same prize.
Bennett, the conscientious coach of the unit since 2005, hasn’t forgotten what the standard at his position must be in order to be called Super Bowl champion.
“It hasn’t changed,” Bennett said. “We’re working on it. We’ve got an extremely competitive group. We’re working to become great.”
Unlike some teams, Green Bay has just one back worthy of extensive carries. For better or worse, it will be Ryan Grant for the fourth straight season.
And, unlike some other teams, the Packers don’t have a player worthy of being on the field for all three downs. Grant has too many rough edges as a receiver and pass protector, and once again figures to depart in two-minute and third-down situations.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, the team hasn’t had a real threat as a third-down insertion since Levens was getting his feet wet in 1995-’96.
Given the robust health of the Packers’ other skill positions, running back rates as just middle of the pack by comparison.
“If they had a top-flight back they could be like the greatest show on turf was,” said one personnel man, alluding to the St. Louis Rams’ offense a decade ago. “If they could get a guy that gives them a pass threat that was just as good as a runner, wow. Now you present problems.”
Grant started all 16 games in 2009. In fact, durability is one of his strongest suits. Since Ted Thompson made one of his best moves by trading a sixth-round draft pick in September 2007 to acquire him from the New York Giants, Grant has played in all 50 games.
Last year, Grant’s playing time was 57.5%, almost exactly what it was in 2008. That ranked 14th among backs in the National Football League, a far cry from Chris Johnson (86.1, Matt Forte (82.4%), Maurice Jones-Drew (81.4%), Steven Jackson (80.6%), Ray Rice (75.1%), Frank Gore (73.8%) and Fred Jackson (70.9%).
Those are the leading all-purpose backs, almost equally adept running and receiving. Levens fit that description, and over time Ahman Green improved mightily in the passing game. In ‘03, Green’s last great season, he was on the field for 71.2% of the snaps.
From 2000-’06, the Packers’ running backs had 38 receptions of 20 yards or more, an average of 5.4 per season. In the last three seasons, they totaled three (20, 21 and 27 yards by Grant) for an average of 1.0.
Until the Packers deem the timing right to draft an every-down back, they will keep hammering away with Grant on inside zone and outside zone runs. Unless rookie James Starks proves to be a revelation, they will go with Grant until he drops on early downs and plug in Brandon Jackson on passing downs.
“I like Grant, but he’s containable,” one scout said. “Let’s just say there’s some yards he leaves on the field. I think he’s solid. I just don’t think you have to defend him in the passing game that much.”
Given his workload, Grant has and should rank well up among the NFL rushing leaders. Last year, he ranked sixth among NFL backs in percentage of his team’s carries at 64.4% after receiving even more of the rushing load (71.4 in 2008.
“What Green Bay tries to do is create vertical stretch through the passing game and eliminate you from loading the box up numbers-wise,” an NFC personnel director said. “That allows them to run the ball. They’re not like the old Redskins who knocked people around. They’re a numbers offense, not a smash-mouth offense.”
Early last season Grant showed almost no creativity and stumbled too much during runs. Later, he ran more with his head up, put a move or two together and stopped running into people.
Grant was making decisive cuts and slamming into holes. He would turn the corner, look for color and deliver a forearm shiver. In short, he became a tough knockdown.
“Do we want his production to be higher? Sure,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “Do we want him to break more tackles at the second level? Yes. Would we like him to be a hair more elusive? At times, yeah.
“But at the end of the day the guy has been a very good player in this offense. He’s got the north-south attitude. He’s got toughness. Maybe he’s faster than we give him credit for. He’s there every week. He practices hard. He only had the one fumble.”
In those 50 games, counting playoffs, Grant has rushed for 3,706 yards, a 4.45 average and 26 touchdowns. In his 112-game Packers career, Green’s average was 4.49. Grant ranked 19th in rushing in 2007, ninth in ’08 and seventh in ’09.
“He’s a guy you can easily take for granted sometimes,” Philbin said. “You can’t turn your nose up at 1,200 yards.”
Whereas Grant allowed 6 1/2 pressures as a pass blocker, Jackson didn’t allow even one. He has made an amazing transformation in blitz pickup from his rookie year of 2007, and unless Starks can engender trust among the coaches in this critical area, the third-down job should remain Jackson’s.
“We put a lot on our running back in protection,” Philbin said. “Before you line a guy up you better be sure he can protect your quarterback. Not that I’m nervous about it …but we’ve got to see if he can pick all that stuff up and function out there.”
Jackson also will be reporting noticeably thicker from his hips to his ankles. The Packers can only hope that the changes in his body will make him less pedestrian with the ball in his hands.
“He’s not super explosive, but I like his power in his lower body and his balance,” Philbin said. “He’s got some short-area quickness and explosiveness. I have a lot of confidence in that guy.”
Starks didn’t play a down at the University of Buffalo last season because of a shoulder injury. At 6 feet 2 inches, he is the tallest back to be drafted since the New York Giants took 6-4 Brandon Jacobs in 2005.
“You have to wait and see how fast he comes back into full stride,” an AFC personnel director said of Starks. “He was one of the true third-down backs in the (draft) class. Really good hands. He’s a good, productive, hard-running back. He could end up being a good hit for them.”
The Packers elected to keep three fullbacks a year ago partly because of the potential they saw in Quinn Johnson. It’s more likely they’ll revert to two this year.
“They’re all different,” Bennett said. “A lot of it will come down to special teams.”
If it does, Johnson has ground to make up. John Kuhn and Korey Hall were far better on special teams in 2009.
Johnson looks the part and at times will crush linebackers in the hole. Other times, he overextends or isn’t sharp on his read, and winds up not getting enough from his blocks. Plus, he doesn’t catch the ball naturally and allowed himself to get too heavy during the off-season.
Kuhn is the best of the three as a runner and is 10 to 15 pounds heavier than Hall, who might be the best receiver of the bunch and blocked well down the stretch.