With Randall Cobb, James Jones and now Jermichael Finley sidelined with injury, the offense of the Green Bay Packers could suddenly look more like Vince Lombardi's than Mike McCarthy's in coming weeks.
Stripped of three top pass-catchers, McCarthy might need to temporarily replace his preferred spread offense with a steady diet of Eddie Lacy and a more conservative passing game led by Aaron Rodgers. Injuries have all but forced the philosophical adjustments.
Finley, who was expected to shoulder an even heavier load with Cobb (broken fibula) and Jones (sprained MCL) on the shelf, suffered a spinal cord contusion against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday and now has an undetermined recovery timeline.
"You don't replace him, based on the way he was utilized and the production he gave us as an offense," McCarthy said Wednesday. "Andrew (Quarless) and (Brandon) Bostick will be have to step up and play a role."
Through six games, Finley had 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns. He was third on the team in catches and targets, fourth in receiving yards and second in receiving touchdowns—ranks that stress his importance.
According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, Finley is eventually expected to be placed on season-ending injured reserve. La Canfora cited the "magnitude of this injury" and "various challenging factors at play" for reasons why the Packers would place Finley on IR, but no such decision has been made on his immediate future.
"We're going to wait until everything comes in," McCarthy said. "We'll do our due diligence and, obviously, not be premature on anything. We'll do what's in the best interest of Jermichael."
While the Packers await word on their pass-catching tight end, football games will go on in Green Bay—starting Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings. Obviously, Finley will not be participating.
Cobb and Jones are unlikely to play, too. Combined, the three have 74 catches, 1,027 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.
With his receivers dwindling, and without obvious replacements in the passing game, McCarthy may have to evolve his offense in upcoming games.
Against the Browns, McCarthy called 44 passes and 28 runs—a ratio that syncs up with his season average of 59.7 percent passes and 41.3 runs.
Without Finley, those percentages may get closer to even.
In past seasons, the Packers offense probably couldn't have survived losing three of its top four pass-catchers. Hellbent on relying on Rodgers to compensate for a lacking run game, McCarthy quickly became one of the more pass-heavy play-callers in the NFL. The result was video-game numbers and buckets of wins, but the Packers' ridiculous depth of receiving options ensured that even one or two injuries wouldn't put a significant dent in the passing game.
Fast forward to 2013, and McCarthy can finally lean back on a running game that has proven to be one of the NFL's best this season.
The Packers are currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 134.6, up 30.1 yards from last season. Green Bay is also averaging 4.9 a carry, good for third overall and an improvement of a full yard from 2012.
At their current pace, the Packers would post their best rushing season since 2003.
|Eddie Lacy: Last Three Games|
|Week 5 vs. DET||23||99||4.3||0|
|Week 6 at BAL||23||120||5.2||0|
|Week 7 vs. CLE||22||82||3.7||1|
|*Most in NFL|
Lacy, a second-round rookie from Alabama, has been a driving force for improvement. With 352 rushing yards, Lacy leads all rookie running backs. And his 301 rushing yards over the last three games is tops in the NFL.
Having only Jordy Nelson and Jarrett Boykin as healthy receivers with more than five catches in 2013 will make it imperative that the Packers running game stays as efficient and productive as it has been to start this season.
Of course, any play-caller who became too run heavy with Rodgers at quarterback would be doing himself a disservice. The Packers will still throw the ball plenty without Finley, and it will expected of the "next man up" to deliver when given the chance.
Quarless, a fourth-year tight end, has been primarily used a blocker only in 2013. He'll likely be the immediate starter with Finley out, and his role in the passing game (he has just four catches for 28 yards) should suddenly increase. But Quarless has limited experience splitting out wide or lining up in the slot, which is where a promising young player like Bostick could play a role.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Finley ran 31.4 percent of his total routes this season from the slot. Bostick, a practice squad player in 2012 with a basketball background, has the kind of athletic ability and pass-catching talent to simulate the kind of routes and schemes the Packers played with Finley available.
Even Jake Stoneburner, who was signed off the practice squad last week, has collegiate experience playing out wide as a receiver.
That said, none of the three are going to successfully replace the down-in, down-out impact Finley brought to the Packers offense.
A conservative passing game that takes calculated shots off the run might be McCarthy's immediate answer to Finley's absence.
Against the Browns, Rodgers attempted just three passes over 20 yards, and only nine total over 10. Without Cobb or Jones, and later Finley, Rodgers was content working underneath Cleveland's coverage—especially when Lacy and the running game put Green Bay in ideal downs and distances.
Still a master of the position, Rodgers completed 69.4 percent of his passes against the Browns for 260 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
There's no reason to think the Packers' strategy will soon change, considering Rodgers will likely be throwing to the likes of Quarless, Bostick, Myles White and potentially even Chris Harper come Sunday in Minnesota.
No offense—and especially one as proud as the one McCarthy has constructed—wants to admit to being too player dependent. Play-callers would like to believe that schemes can create winning matchups regardless of who is operating within the system.
McCarthy likely has that edge—all good offensive minds do—but he's also fully aware of how devastated his receiving group has become. And like any good football coach, he's likely spent the majority of this week and the last coming up with the right adjustments to combat the rash of injuries he's faced in the passing game.
More of the suddenly reliable running game and a conservative passing sheet should be the evolution needed for McCarty and the Packers offense to survive any time without Finley, Cobb and Jones.