Since the arrival of Aaron Jones in Green Bay, now over two and a half years ago, I’ve posted endless pleas that his talents be put to full use. Upon the firing of Coach Mike McCarthy, it seemed my prayers had been answered. But after last Sunday’s woeful display in Los Angeles, this up and down saga is about to resume.
The temptation to compare the mercurial talents of the Packers’ and Panthers’ lead running backs is irresistible.
Though both entered the league via the 2017 draft, McCaffrey was chosen eighth overall after having an illustrious college career at Stanford. Jones, however, was the 182nd player chosen after laboring outside the national spotlight at UTEP in El Paso.
McCaffrey’s talents were immediately recognized – and utilized. In his rookie year, he accumulated over 1,000 yards of offense, with 651 yards coming through the air and 435 on the ground. Carolina and Cam Newton, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player of 2015, targeted the rookie 113 times, with the two connecting on 80 of those throws.
Somewhat to their credit, the Packers quickly recognized that they had a steal in their fifth-round pick. Jones signaled his arrival as a force in the league in just his fifth game in the pros, when he gained 125 yards in 19 carries in the Packers’ 35-31 upset win against the Cowboys in Dallas.
Unlike with McCaffrey though, Jones would account for only 470 yards as a rookie, with all but a handful of those coming on the ground. Aaron caught a total of nine balls for 22 yards under McCarthy’s direction in 2017.
In 2018, McCaffrey became a bona fide NFL rushing juggernaut in addition to being a receiver. He rushed 219 times for 1,098 yards, and he added to his receiving totals, with 107 catches for 867 yards. On the year, he wound up with just 35 yards shy of 2,000 yards of offensive production. He garnered second-team All-Pro honors for these exploits.
Jones, meanwhile, rushed 133 times for 728 yards, and a sterling 5.5 yard average, on the year. His receiving yardage rose a bit to 206 yards (26 catches), which left him with a total production of 934 yards – less than half of what McCaffrey rang up. Though Jones missed four games in each of his first two years, it’s undeniable that his talents went underused by Big Mike McCarthy.
After eight outings in 2019, McCaffrey is on his way to handily eclipsing his gaudy 2018 production. He’s rushed 165 times for 881 yards, and he’s hauled in 42 passes for another 363 yards. If he continues at this pace, he’ll produce 2,988 yards on the year. I think that would smash all previous NFL offensive output records.
Under head coach Matt LaFleur, Aaron in nine games has rushed 122 times for 496 yards, an average of 4.1 yards per carry. His receiving production is much improved, with 35 catches for 354 yards – fourth best in the league among running backs.
What’s particularly disturbing about Aaron’s year is the inconsistency of his numbers. Against the Vikings (Game 2), he produced 150 yards of total offense; against Dallas (Game 5), he produced 182 yards; and, against the Chiefs (Game 8), he upped his total to 226 yards. On the downside, however, he produced but 40 yards against Chicago (Game 1); 23 yards against Denver (Game 3); 58 yards against the Eagles (Game 4); 60 yards against the Lions (Game 6); and a pathetic 29 yards against the Chargers last weekend.
In the game at Los Angeles, LaFleur allowed Jones only eight carries and one catch, for minus yardage, in three targets. It’s tempting to say that the Packers were forced to abandon the run, and the game plan generally, due to the team falling behind on the scoreboard, but I’m not buying it. With four minutes left in the third quarter, the Packers were down by only 12 points, so there was no need to abandon the run. But LaFleur instead chose to attempt to pass on 39 out of 49 plays as this game wound down.
The head coach and the rest of the staff has now had a week to analyze the debacle – surely one of the Packers’ five worst showings in the last decade. We’ll soon find out if LaFleur will return to practicing what he preaches: that you set up the pass game with a strong ground attack, and you present opposing defenses with a variety of play action options.
I’ll grant you that, as flat as the entire team was last Sunday, the Packers were unlikely to turn things around in the second half no matter what, but what we witnessed was a team without any alternatives in mind when the game plan produced no positive results. The Packers’ new coach failed to come up with any meaningful adjustments all game long.
Ron Rivera is in his ninth year as head coach of the Panthers. While his postseason record is only 3-4, Riverboat Ron has a commendable 76-59-1 regular season record. He’s showed how to exploit his most talented players during quarterback Cam Newton’s heyday (2011-15), and you can bet he’s going to ride on the back of Christian McCaffrey at Lambeau on Sunday.
Based on his usage to date in 2019, look for McCaffrey to be handed the ball over 20 times, and to be thrown to at least six times – he’ll be featured in almost half of Carolina’s offensive plays.
Christian McCaffrey and Aaron Jones are physically similar. Neither are extremely athletic. McCaffrey, listed at 5’11” and 207 pounds, compares closely to Jones, at 5’9” and 208 pounds. Neither is considered a power runner and neither is particularly speedy. Each breaks tackles and gets into the open due to quickness, elusiveness, and effort.
I’m thinking that the team that best utilizes its versatile star running back is going to come out the winner on Sunday.