The Packers need to find another hybrid running back
Ty Montgomery’s move to running back helped transform the Packers offense in the final stretch of the season.
A once expansive Mike McCarthy-Aaron Rodgers offense had become plagued by predictability. They began relying too much on Rodgers’ heroics and too little on attacking defenses through play design.
Under McCarthy, the Packers have always been a “package” offense. They will run the same personnel grouping out for entire series and move very little prior to the snap. It’s inherently predictable.
Montgomery’s position switch was the catalyst for change.
The former full-time wide receiver created matchup nightmares for defenses. His ability to shift effortlessly between the backfield and flexing out wide allowed the Packers to remain in the same personnel grouping, but made them more difficult to predict.
Staying in the same grouping allowed them to dictate the game to the defense. Defenses were forced to choose between staying in base – to better defend the run – or nickel – to better defend against the pass. And regardless of what they opted for, the Packers always had the option to switch up the play – flexing Montgomery out wide, bringing him back into the backfield or simply changing the play based on the personnel that Rodgers saw.
Rodgers could also dictate the tempo of the game from the line of scrimmage. Catch the defense in an unfavorable personnel grouping and he could jump into the no-huddle, making defensive coverages more basic and making it easier to set up mismatches prior to the snap.
The switch – along with development of Richard Rodgers – made the Packers’ “12 personnel” (one back, two tight ends) grouping one of the most effective anywhere in the league. It reignited their offense and was a key reason why they were able to lead a playoff charge after watching the wheels fall off earlier in the season.
That was effective last season, but it’s not going be enough on its own going forward.
The Packers need running back reinforcements. They, thankfully, moved on from James Starks at the start of the league year. And they decided to let Eddie Lacy move on to Seattle before he ate his way through all of Wisconsin. Montgomery alone is impactful, but the risk of injury – and therefore the risk of a return to stagnation – is too high to enter the season with him as the clear-cut No. 1.
Adding a thumper like Adrian Peterson — or had they got involved with bringing back Lacy — wouldn’t solve the issue either. Running the ball on first down isn’t the problem. Montgomery has proven he can be an effective zone-cut runner, and he improved his patience behind their gap and man-blocking elements as the year progressed. What happens on second and third down is the key.
Unlike other teams, the Packers are built to have a flexible three-down back, rather than bringing the hammer in on first down and then a space back on passing downs. They just don’t function as well that way. They’re at their best in the blitzkrieg offense: up-tempo, creating pre-snap problems, keeping the defense off-balance and launching shots down the field with the best deep ball thrower in the league
The signing of tight end Martellus Bennett helps. He adds another matchup piece who’s comfortable in-line – which should keep the 12 personnel package effective as long as Montgomery is healthy.
General manager Ted Thompson has to prioritize another back who’s equally as comfortable split out – be it in the slot or out wide – and lining up in the backfield. He already held out on the first stage of free agency, missing out on Danny Woodhead and Rex Burkhead. And it looks like they have no interest in an aging Jamaal Charles.
The rest of free agency is slim pickings, unless they want to go down the wide receiver conversion route again (although Montgomery had played running back in college). On a side note: Cordarrelle Patterson would have been an interesting candidate for that kind of conversion. The former Vikings receiver signed in Oakland. It will be interesting to see how that offense utilizes him.
That leaves Thompson with just the draft to address an offense-defining decision.
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is the perfect fit. He’s as good a back-receiver hybrid as this offseason has to offer. He’s a plug-and-play back who can impact the game on every down, be it as a runner, receiver or return man. That versatility has somewhat overshadowed his ability purely as a back.
At Stanford, he excelled in a gap-scheme offense. He showcased the patience to allow blocks to unfold, and an ability to get skinny and then accelerate through the smallest of holes. But he’d also fit nicely in any number of zone-stretch concepts, having great open-field vision and the ability to accelerate while cutting. Green Bay’s ground game blends both.
Were he entering the draft just as a receiver, he’d still be in consideration as a first-round pick. He can run an entire route tree, and create separation, from the backfield, slot, or flexed out-wide. And he brings a fresh dimension: running back option-routes.
The Packers are as flexible post-snap as any offense in the league. Everything they do has options. They run an expansive run-pass option (RPO) package, and build second phases into their passing concepts due to Rodgers’ uncanny ability to keep plays alive.
It makes their offense difficult to contain – when it’s clicking – because often the same concepts end up playing out differently.
McCaffrey is an option-route savant. He reads safeties and linebacker leverage as well as any back I’ve ever evaluated. He consistently chooses the correct option out of two or four choices, shredding defenses and giving linebackers sleepless nights.
Landing the Stanford star is going to require a bold move from Thompson. McCaffrey should be off the board before the Packers’ 29th pick in the first round. Thompson doesn’t move up the first round often. If there’s a time do so, this is it.
Green Bay’s offseason thus far has shifted the focus of the team further toward an offense that was already carrying the weight of the team. They allowed Micah Hyde, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones to walk out the door, and have yet to properly address their deficient secondary and linebacking corps (Devon House does not count as addressing the team’s biggest issue).
It looks like the only defensive changes are going to come from the incoming rookie class. With a host of rookies, it’s going to be tough to significantly get better than they were in 2016, where they finished 20th in defensive DVOA.
The Rodgers-led offense is going to have to carry the organization, again. For as much as it struggled in the first half of the year, the offense finished 4th in offensive DVOA, in large part because of the Montgomery discovery. Gambling on Montgomery maintaining his performance, and not suffering an injury, is a big bet.
Thompson needs to protect the team by finding a built-in replacement/complement. Whether it’s McCaffrey, a street free agent, or a lower round draft pick, it should be his greatest focus. Not doing so would open the offense up to being one non-Rodgers injury away from stagnating, and would make Thompson derelict in duty.