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.
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.