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It’s Time to Dispel Some Running Back Myths

If I recall correctly, one of our commenters recently made the point that almost all the league’s top rushers played on teams that didn’t make the playoffs – evidence that running back is one of the more overrated NFL positions. Someone even went so far as to say that paying a running back $12 million per season was “wasting money.”

First off, trying to gauge the value of a running back by whether his team makes the playoffs is nonsense. The strength of a team’s defense, and the talent of its quarterback is a tad more determinative of a team’s success than is having a great runner – with the possible exception of the Titans, who rely on Derrick Henry so heavily.

The six leading rushers in 2020 were: Derrick Henry (Titans), Dalvin Cook (Vikes), Jonathan Taylor (Colts), Aaron Jones (Packers), David Montgomery (Bears), and James Robinson (Jags). Actually, four teams featuring one of these top rushers landed in the playoffs, though the Colts and the Bears did so only because seven teams in each conference made the postseason in 2020.

As for quarterbacks, the Vikes had Kirk Cousins, the Bears had Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles, and the Jags had Gardner Minshew and Mike Glennon, so let’s not go blaming the running backs for those teams’ mediocrity.

Especially in this pass-heavy NFL era, statistics tell us that it’s the talent of a team’s quarterback that’s bears greatly on a team’s win-loss record. So what’s wrong with a great QB and a great RB (or two)? Additionally, when appraising a running back, both his running and receiving ability should be considered.

Then there’s the matter of a team’s usage of its running backs. The importance of the RBs on a team with a pass-dominant attack is diminished. The Packers’ head coach, however, professes to be a run-first proponent, so for the Packers a stud running back is highly desirable.

Also, some teams rely on just one alpha running back, while others have multiple RBs sharing the load. As Packer fans can attest, the 49ers had a fearsome rushing attack in 2019, even though its top rusher, Raheem Mostert, ranked only 25th in running back yardage. That’s because the Niners platooned its RBs: Matt Breida gained 623 yards, Tevin Coleman gained 544, and Jeff Wilson gained 105. Had LaFleur and McCarthy not chosen to share the load in Green Bay, the stats of Aaron Jones would be much more impressive, and I suspect he would have been a three-time Pro Bowler by now.

I’ve repeatedly claimed that both McCarthy and LeFleur have underutilized Jones. The stats are now in on this: Jones was out there 51.9% of the time in 2020, while Jamaal Williams was there for just over 40% of the offensive plays. The two were rarely on the field at the same time,

I’ve previously indicated to those fans who think Williams is nearly as talented as Jones that we’ll get a good indication of their respective values when the two come up for new contracts. That time is now. Jones just got a 4-year deal averaging $12 million, while Williams got a 2-year deal averaging $3.5 million. That shouts out to me that Jones should have been on the field considerably more often in each of his first four years in Green Bay.

I’m banking on it that second-year, second-round pick A.J. Dillon will be a great asset to the team. I’m also hoping that the two will often be lined up in the backfield, one on each side of Rodgers – I’ve never been crazy about the I-formation. This usage, with both a power runner and a finesse and speed runner available, will give LaFleur, Hackett, and Rodgers a multitude of options on every play. At the same time, both running backs appear to be adept receivers and willing blockers.

If these two guys can stay healthy, the Packers are going to present opposing defenses with some daunting challenges. The Packers might even approach the point of being a 50/50 team when it comes to pass versus run plays. Last season, the Pack had 526 pass attempts and 443 rushes; in LaFleur’s first year the balance was 573 and 411.

It’s true that passing yardage constitutes the bulk of offensive yardage. In 2020, Green Bay rang up 4,114 yards through the air, and only 2,118 on the ground. Still, it’s rushing plays that allow a team to control the time of possession, cause favorable third down and short yardage situations, maintain long drives, and keep its defense off the field for lengthy periods. Run attacks also mightily wear down defensive linemen.

The Jones Injury

I want to pivot back in time for a moment. The impact of the injury to Aaron Jones in the conference championship game has seldom been discussed. On the third play of the second half, Jones fumbled the ball away, which quickly led to another Tampa Bay touchdown.

It was the result of a brutal hit by Bucs’ safety Jordan Whitehead – neither player was able to return to play. Jones was essentially blindsided, as he had just made the catch with his back to the defense and was attempting to turn and look upfield; it was a third down and he was three yards short of the marker.

To their great credit, the Packers launched a gallant comeback effort. After the Buc’s score, the Pack had two nice touchdown drives, of 8 and 13 plays, which closed the score to 28-23.

Plenty of time remained: seven and a half minutes. Thanks to two more interceptions of Brady, the Packers got the ball back three more times: with just over 12 minutes left, with 9:15 left, and with 4:42 left. Unfortunately, Jones was unavailable, due to a “chest injury,” for the final 29 minutes of the game.

Without their big run, big play, and big touchdown threat, all the Packers could manage in three drives was one field goal. The Packers even had a first down on the Bucs’ 8-yard line, but they abandoned the run and missed on three pass attempts.

Not that it does a whole lot of good, but without the injury to Jones, I think the Packers would have scored a go-ahead touchdown and won that game.

Packers RB Aaron Jones rushes against Vikings

Sep 15, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) is hit by Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) and Anthony Harris (41) as he runs for a gain in the third quarter during their football game Sunday, September 15, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin via USA TODAY Sports

Looking ahead to 2021

I’m hoping that Jones and A.J. Dillon will be on the field together as much as possible this season. We’ll see if that happens, or if LeFleur continues his dubious practice of switching running backs each time the team begins a new offensive drive.

It could be that the return of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett in 2021 is as important to the team’s success as is the return of Jones. Hackett, who is joining LaFleur for their third year in Green Bay, has received a lot of credit for the Packers offensive turnaround. This led him to being under consideration for a number of head coaching jobs, but those openings have now all been filled.

In May of 2020, I did a post titled “We’ll see the Real Matt LaFleur in Year 2.” I speculated that Coach LaFleur’s offense would see a big jump in Year 2 of the implementation of his very thick offensive play book. That happened, and I feel that in Year 3 there will be continued progression. Most of the starters on offense are returning, and they are already familiar with the LaFleur-Hackett play diagrams and calls.

If the “thunder and lightning” run attack proves to be as potent in practice as it is in theory, this edition of the Packers is going to provide a lot of excitement – and a lot of wins. Given how many of last season’s playoff teams the Pack is scheduled to face this season (Bears, Rams, Steelers, Seahawks and Washington at home, Bears, Cardinals, Ravens, Saints, and likely the Chiefs away), a strong run game is just the ticket to be consistently competitive.

Congratulations to both the team’s front office and to Aaron Jones himself for getting our Pro Bowl RB re-signed. As good as the Packers offense has generally been during the Favre-Rodgers continuum, I envision that 2021 is going to be something special for this star-filled group.

Tags:
Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.

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26 Comments

  1. KILLER March 20, 2021

    Rob, I do agree with the general message that running backs are of value. That is certainly true. W-L should not be attached to any single RB or any single player. They either performed well or not. If a CB gets 3 interceptions and allowed zero yards but his team loses, it does not mean the CB sucks. Deshaun Watson went 4-12 last year. It does not mean he is a bad QB. Belichick went 7-9 last year. That does not mean he is a bad coach or coached badly last year.

    That said, there are a few corrections to your article which need to be pointed out to the more dimwitted of the readers, in order to help them.

    1. Saying that Dalvin Cook was somehow held back by Kirk Cousins is ridiculous, or that Cousins was the reason the team went 7-9 and not Cook. Cousins was the #5 QB last year and the Captain Kirk of the NFL’s #4 offense. While Rodgers did better than Cousins personally last year (but under-performed him the 2 previous years), Captain Kirk actually led a more powerful offense, slightly, than did Rodgers. As always with a Packer Backer, you need to be careful to avoid hypocrisy but probably have no desire to do so.

    2. You often do bemoan the lack of Aaron Jones usage and, certainly, Gute the Bad was a fool to draft Dillon in Rd 2 last year. So, I do agree with you. However, in other articles you push the story line that the Vikings over-utilize Dalvin Cook. You’ve been pushing this since early 2019. Last year they did have a differential as Gute tried to prove the value of drafting Dillon and tried to undercut Jones’ free agency value. Also, Cook had to take more carries as the Vikings back up, an excellent one, was out with surgery. However, going back to 2019 when you were first and most vociferous about this idea that Jones got too few touches and Cook had too many, Cook only had a total of 18 more touches of the ball all year long than Jones.

    So, hypocrisy. There it is. I just proved it. Go ahead and correct your standpoint, perhaps apologize, and then choose one, only one of them, as the one you wish to stick with. Or stick with hypocrisy. It would not surprise me.

    Reply
    1. Robster March 20, 2021

      Stop putting words in my mouth that I’ve not said. The Pack faces some very tough runners within their division: Cook (1,557 yards) and 23-year old bruiser David Montgomery (1,070). The Lions are in transition both at QB and RB: Adrian Peterson is a free agent, so their depth chart reads: second-year man D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, and Kenyon Johnson – they might want to look for an RB early in the draft. The fact that the Packers face such tough RBs twice yearly is an additional reason for them to draft a top-rated ILB/run stopper.

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 20, 2021

        Don’t you just love that when people try to speak for you?
        .
        I’m happy to report L B doesn’t resort to those tactics with me.
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        Probably because he finds that plagiarizing my comments, as his own, is far more useful to him.

        Reply
    2. Ferris March 21, 2021

      Captain Kurt CAREER record….51-51-2. Record with the team he plays for now with idiot fans like you 25-21-1. No need to even mention his record against winning teams…but it is 7-31 in his career. Career playoff wins….1. For all that winning by the end of 2022 they will have paid him $196M, and no matter what he does in 2021 his $35M 2022 salary is fully guaranteed. Please have them sign him to a lifetime contract!!!!
      One more thing Belichick isn’t a Quarterback.
      You are proving things with your posts…but not hypocrisy.

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 21, 2021

        Someone who actually reads his post?

        I do it a bit different, i usually look at the first couple of sentences, and jump down to the last couple.

        I just look for keywords like…Super Bowl…vikings…Championships…apologize…hypocrisy..etc.

        Thanks for helping him out though with the reality of the situation, he should probably be thanking you for the guidance.
        .
        Sometimes when people get out of lock up and get released, they sometimes find living out in reality has it’s own set of challenges.
        .
        God bless you for being there for him.

        Reply
        1. Ferris March 21, 2021

          I skim for Cousins…better…outplay Rodgers. Just stupidity.

          Reply
          1. PF4L March 22, 2021

            I skim for no man! :)

            Reply
  2. Ed March 20, 2021

    I thought the show “Queen for a day” was canceled years ago ?

    Reply
    1. PF4L March 20, 2021

      LOL….”Queen for a Day”
      ,
      That’s gold Jerry….Gold!!

      Reply
  3. PF4L March 20, 2021

    “So, hypocrisy. There it is. I just proved it. Now….how about my cookie!?” – Killer

    Reply
  4. Howard March 20, 2021

    Agree Rob. Congratulations are due to both the Packers and Jones for getting the deal done. As we discussed in an earlier article the four year deal could and probably should be broken into two 2 year time frames. First 2 years approximately 20 million, and last 2 years approximately 28 million. If the Packers want out after 2 years it is an easy out and Jones can hit the market with tread left on his wheels. The deal was a win for both parties as long as Jones stays healthy.
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    I really think LaFleur will do everything in his power to keep Jones fresh throughout the seasons ahead. LaFleur did such while in Tennessee. I would almost guarantee McVey expressed to LaFleur that he regretted overworking Gurley and not having Gurley healthy for the 2018 playoffs and Super Bowl.
    .
    I really think Jones will see more snaps. More snaps may not relate to Jones taking more hits, or having substantially more touches. Jones can be a matchup nightmare in space. Moving Jones around can expose and setup those mismatches. I would not be surprised to see Jones as the jet option guy on some plays this year, with Dillion as the I back.
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    I think every NFL team needs a few players like J. Williams. I think the Packers will miss him on the field and in the locker room. Good luck to Williams in Detroit as long as it is not against the Packers.

    Reply
  5. Mick March 20, 2021

    I agree Howard. J. Williams will be missed. He seems to have a zest for life, and being a football player. Never fumbled while in GB, and is a hard worker. He was happy for A. Jones getting his deal done and not bitter about not receiving an extension himself. He expressed how he loved being in GB, loved his teammates; and is looking forward to his new team. CLASS ACT!

    Reply
    1. PF4L March 20, 2021

      He’s just a good dude who knew his role on the team and he was cool with it.
      .
      I just wish that they kept those two together and drafted a d. lineman, wr, or corner with Dillons 2nd round pick.
      .
      I think they’d be closer to where the team wants to be vs. just adding another rb.
      The teams needs help, where they need help, clearly it’s been proven that, ignoring those needs don’t make them go away.
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      I don’t care if Dillon rushes for 700 yards and scores 7 times. It’s a damn shame they went the way they did, and separated those two.
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      Now, if and when we have a starter from the 2020 draft, somebody please alert me.

      Reply
      1. rebelgb March 20, 2021

        Jesus Christ give it a rest dude.

        Reply
        1. PF4L March 21, 2021

          What…talking football on a football website?
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          Enlighten and entertain us some more with your tales on how Aaron Rodgers is finished, how’s he’s lost it.
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          Or…..do you just want to keep commenting in here once a month with your non football related comment?
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          Everyone appreciates your input and contributions.
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          Don’t ever stop being the best you can be.

          Reply
  6. PF4L March 20, 2021

    “If these two guys can stay healthy, the Packers are going to present opposing defenses with some daunting challenges.” – Robster
    .
    I thought they had that covered already?
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    The highest scoring offense in the league usually isn’t a problem area.
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    But, as Ted Thompson once said concerning problem area’s on the team, and that Gute probably learned from him….
    “Those situations usually tend to work themselves out.”
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    Yea…he said it, surely i’m not the only one that remembers that.
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    If that isn’t their philosophy, they sure as hell had me fooled.

    Reply
  7. Dean March 20, 2021

    Jones is not a big back; therefore, having Williams and now Dillon to share the load and help keep Jones healthy is a good thing. I too want to see Jones and Dillon together on many plays.
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    I would not be surprised if GB is closer to 50/50 in pass/run % this year compared to last year. Having a great run threat leads into the play action which helps all around — think pass protection and maybe even more long TD passes. It was nice to have the best LT and Center last year to protect #12. Play action done right can help our OL until Bak gets back.

    Reply
  8. PF4L March 21, 2021

    These are must read articles for Packer fans…..
    sportsnaut.com/green-bay-packers-future-aaron-rodgers-contract
    .
    Ok…lets re-group on the saga of Aaron Rodgers future and how the Packers view him and what we know now.
    .
    The Packers opted not to guarantee any of Rodgers non guaranteed money. That is their choice, and their right
    But maybe it’s time to read between the lines based on that information. These are just my opinions.
    1) We will be watching Rodgers last season in Green Bay here in 2021. I also speculate that move to be the plan of the team to trade Rodgers while they can still get something for him.
    2) Make no mistake, they decided to move on (which some of us already knew)…as of today. Of course if Rodgers lights it up this season, the Packers could change their tune, just as sure as the wind will blow.
    3) When Rodgers talked about the uncertainty of his future, some thought he was being a Diva. I thought he was a 16 year veteran of the NFL who has seen it all and is smarter than most, and can read between the lines.
    *********************************************
    Here is a video of Mike Greenburg, Rob Demovsky, and Tim Hasslebeck.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN-k6Zg0Ens
    My observations…..
    1) Love having only 9 practices gets brought up endlessly, and it’s valid i guess. But A) it was the same for all teams B) it sure as hell didn’t seem to be a problem for Herbert.
    2) It seems to me the consensus is that Love just wasn’t/isn’t ready for the NFL.
    3) Most scouts thought that Love needed to stay in college and get 1 more season under his belt, seems they were right.
    4) Everyone talks about Jordan Love being a project coming into the NFL.
    5) Nobody…nobody was/or is complimenting the Packers on that draft pic, pre or post draft. Especially trading up and chasing him.
    6) None of this, is Jordan Love’s fault. I’m not a hater. A player doesn’t dictate when he gets drafted (see Aaron Rodgers). Love is receiving 12 million guaranteed, more power to him. Again, that isn’t his fault
    7) The only thing i can fault Love for is maybe not staying in college. But if a player thinks (or knows) a team wants to take him in the first round, i can’t blame him. Remember..it was Gute who grabbed a plane and went to go see him in the fall before the draft.
    8) video…6:30 – 6:36 – “Just because a QB was taken in the first round, doesn’t mean he can play” Tim Hasslebeck.
    9) video…6:43 – 6: 50 – ” I do think, it would be ridiculously embarrassing if Jordan Love is not able to beat out Tim Boyle to be the back up QB.” – Tim Hasslebeck

    Draw your own conclusions….i think its a clusterfuck handled badly, and it won’t be Rodgers or Love with egg on his face.

    Reply
    1. PF4L March 21, 2021

      Rebelgb doesn’t want to hear any of this….he thinks i should just shut up and give it a rest (as if he dictates what i should or shouldn’t talk about). Lol…whatever you say tiger :)
      .
      But….in a gesture of respect to Rebels request, i think he should F O, respectfully.

      Reply
    2. Mick March 22, 2021

      Thanks for the “must reads” article. I’ve heard about Sportsnaut.com before, but didn’t give it much attention. Knowing the teams’ salary situation; not aggressively re-working Rodgers’ contract—– is a sign there’s smoke in the wood pile. With Boyle gone; Gute just increased the pressure on himself. If Rodgers gets hurt, and Love is not ready to step in;;;;;;;; Gute will be the banter around the league for quite some time!

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 22, 2021

        I don’t think Gute has an idea of the pressure he will be under, if Love doesn’t become even “somewhat” special.
        .
        Once Rodgers is gone, and Love is starting, if Love doesn’t succeed, even Gutes staunchest supporters will be looking at him sideways when he’s at church, the grocery store, pumping gas, etc.

        Reply
  9. PF4L March 21, 2021

    Because i can’t help it…..
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    ICE Books Hotel Rooms for Six Months to House Migrant Families at Border.
    Really?
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    The Biden administration has entered an $86 million contract to house members of migrant families in hotel rooms.
    Really?
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    Who is paying for their food, clothing, etc?…Hopefully it’s us, the taxpayers.
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    Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy them a car and set them up in an apartment?
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    The terms will allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find hotels near the southern border to hold up to 1,200 migrant family members,
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    That comes to………better sit down for this….$71,666.00 per person.

    Reply
    1. Ed March 22, 2021

      Please find a political forum.

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 22, 2021

        I apologize…sometimes the ugliness of reality makes me go silly.

        Reply
  10. Mick March 23, 2021

    Hot off the press; According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, the Packers signed K. King to a 1 year, 6mil deal;;;;;;;;;OOOOHHHH BOY!

    Reply
    1. PF4L March 23, 2021

      Well it’s about damn time…..Finally…the team gets serious about winning that elusive 14th World Championship.
      .
      All they had to do was give King a raise of 4.6 million and boom!…we’re there!!
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      Rest easy Packer Nation…Gute’s got this!

      Reply

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