Mike McCarthy: Running Back Rating Genius
In the spring of 2017, the Green Bay Packers did the unusual during the draft: in consecutive rounds, they selected running backs. They took Jamaal Williams in round four and Aaron Jones in round five. Williams had a fine career at BYU; Jones had the same at University of Texas at El Paso.
They each went to the NFL Combine. Their scores or times were: 4.49 and 4.59 in the 40-yard dash; 1.51 and 1.60 in the 10-yard split; 4.20 and 4.53 in the 20-yard short shuttle; 6.82 and 7.25 in the 3-cone drill; 37.5” and 30” in the vertical jump; 127” and 123” in the broad jump. In each instance the better mark was put up by Jones. Jones also recorded 16 bench presses, while Williams passed on taking that test. For those not real familiar with such tests, the variances between the two sets of marks are substantial.
The Packers took on the Eagles, Redskins, Broncos and Rams in the preseason. As is the Packers custom, the fourth rounder got precedence over the fifth rounder. In the first two games Williams got 11 carries, while Jones got only five. Neither was noteworthy.
In the third and fourth games, however, each got 14 carries. Against the Broncos, Jones went six for 43, Williams three for four. Against the Rams, Jones went eight for 48, while Williams got 31 yards in 11 carries. For the preseason, Jones had 19 carries for 105 yards, a 5.5 average. Williams averaged 2.4 yards per carry in his 25 attempts. Jones scored two touchdowns; Williams had none. Jones’ longest carries were for 28 and 24 yards; Williams’ longest gains were for six, five, and five yards.
Regular Season – First Half
As you probably know, Williams was designated as the backup to Ty Montgomery, while Jones took his place on the bench. Williams had 10 carries in the first five games; Jones had no carries in the first three games.
If it weren’t for Montgomery busting some ribs in game four, Jones might have spent the entire season on the bench. Those broken ribs were Jones’ big break: he came in against the Bears and surprised people with 13 carries for 49 yards.
Next up was the Cowboys in Dallas. In 19 carries, he rambled for 125 yards, a 6.6 average, and a touchdown. The little-known rookie led the Packers to a stunning win — you’d think a star had been born. He followed up with 13 carries for 41 yards against Minnesota, and then he gained 131 yards in 17 carries against the Saints – 7.7 yards per carry.
Regular Season – Second Half
The Packers’ ninth game of the year was a critical home game versus the Lions. On the heels of Jones’ great performance against the Saints, a knee injury that occurred against the Vikings caused this headline: “Aaron Jones’ Season Is Likely Over.” He gave it a go, with five runs for 12 yards, but Ty Montgomery finished up the game. Jones then got only three carries against Chicago and didn’t play against the Ravens or the Steelers.
Here’s where the genius of Mike McCarthy comes into play. Jones was ready to go against Tampa Bay in week 13, but instead the coach went with Williams – who performed very well: 21 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown. When Williams finally needed a blow, Jones was brought in – with six minutes left in overtime – for one play. Typically, it was a run right up the middle. Hopelessly boxed in, Jones quick-stepped to the left, darted out of the scrum, and zoomed around the left side. Leaving the Bucs’ secondary agape, he leaped into the end zone for the win. It’s the kind of play our grandkids will be told about some day.
Healthy again, Jones reclaims the starting job, right? Of course not. In the next three games, Jones totaled just 10 carries for 58 yards, a 5.8 average. Williams, meanwhile, had 40 carries for 137 yards, a 3.4 yard average. Jones missed the final game of the season due to an injury; Williams had 22 carries for 82 yards in the embarrassing loss at Detroit.
Jones finished the year with 81 carries for 448 yards, and a 5.5 average. Williams wound up with 153 carries, 556 yards, and a 3.6 yard average. Each had four rushing touchdowns.
As he had been throughout college and in preseason, Jones was explosive, with runs of 46, 23, 22, 21, and 20 yards. Williams, in almost twice the carries, had one run of more than 14 yards – a 25-yarder.
Pro Football Focus graded Aaron Jones overall at 82.7 on the year. Though he wasn’t given enough carries to qualify for a ranking, it would have placed him 15th in the league. Jamaal Williams was graded at 69.7, which ranked him 42nd among 58 qualifying running backs.
Williams was by far the higher-rated pass blocker. Though Williams also had considerably better receiving statistics, PFF actually gave Jones the better receiving grade. I’ll have more to say about the Packers’ usage of Jones in an upcoming post.
The upshot to all this is that Big Mike favors Williams over Jones. Jones was barely played until injuries gave him an opening; more confounding, despite twice being named NFL Rookie of the Week, and despite his heroic walk-off touchdown run against the Bucs, he continued to be played sparingly right up to the final game of the season. It’s Jeff Janis redux.
What this portends is that Aaron Jones will be the third-string running back in 2018 – that’s unless a new running back makes the roster and wins the favor of the coach – pushing him down to fourth-string.
This is the kind of decision-making and favoritism McCarthy has shown time and again in his previous 12 seasons as the head man. You’d be foolish to think he’ll change now.
Get ready for lot of angst in 2018, Packers fans!