Things often run in cycles in the NFL and 2017, in my opinion, was the year of the scatback.
A scatback is of course a smallish running back who is fast and elusive, rather than big and strong. Especially in the season just ended, scatbacks made quite a name for themselves – but mostly as receivers.
Here are some of them, and how they performed as receivers in 2017:
Alvin Kamara (5’10”, 215) – 81 catches as a rookie for the Saints, caught over four-fifths of balls thrown to him, had more yards through the air than on the ground
Christian McCaffrey (5’11”, 205) – 80 catches for the Panthers, with all but 75 of his 651 yards coming after the catch
Duke Johnson (5’9”, 210) – 74 catches for the lowly Browns; 694 receiving and 348 rushing yards
LeSean McCoy (5’11”, 210) – 59 grabs for the Bills; 441 receptions in his nine-year career
Kareem Hunt (5’10”, 216) – another precocious rookie and instant Pro-Bowler, 53 catches for the Chiefs, 455 yards, three TDs – one a 78-yard scamper
James White (5’10”, 205) – 56 catches, his third consecutive productive receiving year for the Pats
Tarik Cohen (5’6”, 181) – the speedy rookie had 53 catches for the Bears
Theo Riddick (5’9”, 201) – 53 catches for the Lions; 80 catches for 697 yards in 2015
Jerick McKinnon (5’9”, 205) – 51 catches in his fourth year with the Vikes
Giovani Bernard (5’9”, 205) – 43 catches for the Bengals; he’s caught 39 or more passes in all four years with Cincinnati
Devonte Freeman (5’8”, 206) – 36 catches for the Falcons; 240 catches in his four years in the league
J.D. McKissic (5’10’, 195) – 34 catches for the Seahawks, still a backup, he comes in to mix things up
Did you notice that most of the teams cited above made the playoffs? Good teams are versatile, and they use all the weapons available to them. The Super Bowl champion Eagles had three scatbacks to throw defenses off balance: Darren Sproles (5’6”, 181), Kenyon Barner (5’9”, 196), and Wendall Smallwood (5’10”, 208).
Packers fans should have some familiarity with many of these players. In that critical loss to the Panthers, McCaffrey torched Green Bay for six catches, for 73 yards and a touchdown. The Packers avoided losing to the winless Browns despite Duke Johnson catching four of four throws for 41 yards and a touchdown. Theo Riddick has had several big games against the Packers in his five years with the Lions. Devonta Freeman went four for 42 yards and a touchdown in Atlanta’s playoff win over Green Bay in 2016. Rookie Tarik Cohen should have plenty of chances in future Green Bay-Chicago contests.
Might the Packers go out and look for a scatback who makes a tempting screen pass target for Aaron Rodgers? Oh wait, he’s already here: Aaron Jones, 5’9” and 208 pounds, is a fabulous receiving threat.
McCarthy’s Misuse of Scatbacks
So how is it possible that Aaron Jones was thrown to 18 times and compiled a grand total of 22 yards through the air in 2017? It’s because he was used almost exclusively as a dump-off target for a beleaguered Brett Hundley.
For the year, both QB and RB Aarons were available for five games together; these games produced two completions out of three throws, for 15 yards. The Hundley to Jones stats were: 15 throws, seven completions, seven yards. SEVEN! Jones did well to get back to the line of scrimmage.
In contrast, Green Bay did set up Jamaal Williams nicely on some screen passes. One of the finer plays of the Packers’ season was a well-executed screen to Jamaal against Pittsburgh, which went for a 54-yard touchdown. Over the entire season, however, the Packers never managed to get Jones open for so much as a 10-yard pass play. What is a gigantic waste of talent!
What you saw in 2017 was just one dimension of Aaron Jones. He passed all tests as a runner, but he was never tested as a receiver.
It’s also accurate to say that Aaron Rodgers in 13 years in Green Bay has almost never had such a weapon. Yes, the undrafted DuJuan Harris (5’7”, 206) was a scatback, though not nearly as skilled as is Jones. In his time at Green Bay, which was marred by a knee injury that cost him the entire 2013 season, DuJuan had 50 carries for 221 yards. Did he get more yards through the air or on the ground? Take a guess – I’ll tell you later.
Jones has quickness and elusiveness that are a match for any of the scatbacks on the above list. Almost all of those guys gain more yards through the air than on the ground. For their teams and coaches, the screen pass isn’t a novelty, it’s bread and butter.
Drew Brees threw to Kamara, a rookie and only a third-rounder at that, 100 times – the Saints didn’t spend three years developing him – he’s an All-Pro and Pro Bowler. Dynamic rookie Christian McCaffrey only gained 435 yards (3.7 average), and scored but two touchdowns via the rush. As a receiver though, he rang up 651 yards and five touchdowns. This is how smart teams make use of the skill sets of their players.
Green Bay menace Theo Riddick gets to bedevil the Packers’ defense twice a year. For his career, he’s rushed for 852 yards (3.4 average), but he’s gained 1,854 yards through the air. It would be accurate to say that a scatback, properly used, is essentially an additional receiver. Isn’t that just what Green Bay currently needs?
DuJuan Harris was thrown to four times while wearing the green and gold in 2012 and 2014; he caught three of them, for 28 yards. TWENTY-EIGHT. It’s conclusive: Mike McCarthy has never effectively utilized a scatback as a pass catcher.
Yes, some running backs have been good receiving options for Aaron Rodgers. Eddie Lacy caught 77 balls in his first two years, then slowly ate himself right out of a job. Just think of what Aaron Jones could have accomplished with that much open field.
I’ve documented what a great rookie year Aaron Jones had, despite not being played enough. In fact though, we’ve only seen half of what this scatback can do.
Will the Packers utilize Jones from three to six times a game in 2018 on screens and other passes, as other top teams do with their talented scatbacks? Or will they continue to squander and misuse another valuable asset? I’d love to be proven wrong, but I fear I know the answer.