Every article that previews the fortunes of the Green Bay Packers in 2012 says that the Achilles Heel of the offense is their lack of a running game. Is this true? To what extent is the team's continued offensive success in 2012 dependent on the better establishment of a ground game?
In 2011, the Packers ran the ball 395 times for a total of 1558 yards and eight touchdowns (this includes the 60 attempts, 257 yards and three touchdowns by Aaron Rodgers). This was 27th in the league in terms of yards and 26th in attempts. So it is certainly true that the running game was one of the poorer ones in the NFL last year.
The Packers passing game, on the other hand, was at the top of the NFL. They threw the ball 552 times for 4924 yards and an astounding 51 touchdowns (all team records). Yet in the current pass-happy NFL, this was only the third best yardage total in the league. Though, it was tops in the league in terms of touchdowns.
Overall, the Packers were third in the league, averaging over 405 yards per game and leading the league in scoring with an average of 35 points per game. The 560 regular season points scored was the second-highest point total in the history of the NFL. How much did a lack of a running game affect a team that was one of the most prolific scoring teams in the history of the NFL? Not very much, judging by the results.
Conventional wisdom is that a running game is needed to hammer at an opponent and wear them down. A running game is used to preserve victories and shorten the clock when a team is ahead. In addition, all sorts of stats can be gathered showing how a team that runs for a certain amount of yards or a certain number of attempts is more likely to win the game (I always thought this stat just showed which team was ahead and running out the clock, anyway).
But the Packers do not appear to adhere to conventional wisdom. Even when way ahead, Green Bay does not run the ball on a consistent basis. Even when the running game is working, the Packers do not run the ball more often. In the Packers' Week 10 45-7 win over the Vikings, the leading carrier for the Packers had 13 attempts. In a Week 14 victory against the Raiders in which they led 31-0 at halftime, the Pack still only managed 21 carries by running backs. Even though they averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry in that game, and had a large lead, they still ran it fewer times than the Houston Texans do in the first half of an average game.
The defense was so poor in 2011 that even when scoring 30 plus points, the outcome was often still in doubt late in the game. This led to a need to keep the pressure on and to go for more points. Thus, more passing was used.
But the above examples show that even when ahead comfortably, the Packers preferred to throw the ball. The lack of any consistent running game appeared to be clearly by design.
Quarterbacks threw the ball in 2011 in unprecedented amounts. There were more NFL passers throwing for over 5,000 yards last season then there were in all the previous seasons put together. The rules favor passing; and the ability to make yards in large chunks is obvious.
The Packers have clearly shown that they think the best way for them to move the ball and score is to throw it as many times as possible. And lets face it – scoring is the goal.
They have an accurate quarterback who excels at seeing the field and finding the open man, and an excellent receiving corps that can get open and provide easy targets. Also, the Packers completed 68 percent of their passes. Green Bay scored better than anyone in football last year – better than every NFL team in history, except one. The lack of the running game was not a concern when they scored over 40 points six times, and 30 points or more five other times.
For the Packers to run the ball more often would mean that Aaron Rodgers would have to throw it less often. No one has a goal of having a 50/50 split of runs and passes if it means that they are going to score fewer points.
The chicken or the egg question for Green Bay is: do they run it less often because they don't run it well, or do they not run it well because they don't run often enough? Has the coaching staff watched the team try to run it in practice and decided to stick to passing? Or, was the pass the plan all along, and the reason the team has not gone after any free agent or highly-drafted running back because, simply put, the Packers do not want to run the ball?
Any answer here would be pure conjecture, but my personal opinion is that Green Bay has decided to go with the strengths of the team—namely Aaron Rodgers and the receivers—and the run is just a change of pace thrown in once in a while. This is just my feeling from watching every down of the team last year—observing the times when the run worked; the times when there were six defensive backs lined up against them on first down; and the times when they were ahead by more than 20 points and threw the ball anyway. At times it seemed a team could line up so slanted to the pass, almost begging the Packers to run, and still they would just throw it anyway.
The Packers flout conventional wisdom and have opted to throw the ball 60 percent of the time, or even more. After scoring 560 points in 2011, who can blame them for continuing or even expanding this trend? Running the ball more often may just slow this team down and hurt production.
The biggest impediment to the team having a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 is that no rusher is going to get even 15 carries per game no matter how effectively he is running the ball. This may change if the Pack ever get a highly productive runner; but for the time being, the lack of the running game for the Green Bay Packers appears to all be part of the plan.
It may be a nice luxury to be able to run the ball effectively, especially if teams are shutting down the pass. But so far, no one has shut down the pass consistently, and modern NFL rules favor passing, anyway. Look for the Pack to sling it all over the field again in 2012, and score a lot of points doing it. The lack of a running game is not a concern and not something that will hamper this team in any way in 2012.