Wanted: A running game
First, a couple history lessons — and recent histories, at that. Last year, the Indianapolis Colts were in position to finish the regular season 16-0 until coach Jim Caldwell decided to bench his starters. So what? The Colts finished dead last in the NFL in rushing, with two teams doubling their 1,294 rushing yards, as well as next-to-last in attempts. In 2008, the Steelers — you know, the physical Steelers — finished 23rd in rushing while Arizona finished 32nd.
So, the notion that an offense needs to be able to run the ball — needs to have balance — is mostly hogwash.
Then again, the Colts are a dome team and can afford to throw the ball 35 times a game in December and January. Pittsburgh could lean on its devastating defense. A winter day in Arizona isn't exactly the same as a winter day in Green Bay.
What we've learned in dramatic fashion over the last two games is that Ryan Grant is one of the most underappreciated players in the league. Not only can't the Packers run the ball without him, they didn't even bother on Monday. Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass 48 times while Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn carried the ball a combined 13 times. And it wasn't as if the Packers had to change their game plan because they were hopelessly behind.
Nowhere to run for Jackson.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"I like our running backs," coach Mike McCarthy said when I asked him about his faith in his ball-carriers. "We are going to use them accordingly to get the ball down the field. I'm not trying to sell something that is not true. Just because you don't line up and run it 25 times from the ‘I' doesn't mean you are not committed to being productive with your running backs. If you look at the dynamics of our offensive personnel, we have the ability to play in a box offense. We have the ability to play in a spread offense. That is to our credit, and we're going to utilize that the best we can to score points."
If Jackson's not the answer and Kuhn's not the answer, then who is? Dimitri Nance? Marshawn Lynch (cue the rumor mill!)? Or was the answer on display on Monday night, with the fate of the offense put entirely on Rodgers? Given general manager Ted Thompson's track record — and that, contrary to one report, the Bills aren't actively shopping Lynch, a source told us — the fate of the season will be on Rodgers making plays when everyone knows he's the one that has to make plays.
A very good coach but ...
Make no mistake about it: McCarthy is an excellent coach. He's a wizard with quarterbacks, a superb play-caller and he has the deep respect of his players.
To be sure, Rodgers was brilliant on Monday. But for those fans who are quick to diss the coach when he does something wrong, let's give the coach some credit for his game plan against the Bears. He knows he can't run the ball, so why bother? Moving the ball against a quality defense — a defense that knows the offense can't run the ball — is no small task. If there's one thing he has consistenly shown, it's that he'll move the ball however it has to be moved. He's making the most of what he's got and not banging his head into the wall with a running game that lacks a quality runner.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Because of that challenge, which had no chance of prevailing, he was short a third timeout. With that timeout, he could have played defense at the end and given Rodgers about 45 seconds with the ball. Instead, the Bears ran the clock down and Rodgers never got a chance. So, while his game plan revolved completely around his best player, his end-of-game strategy kept his best player on the sideline.
"It was an option at the time," McCarthy said of letting the Bears score. "It was the option that we chose not to make. I believe in our defense. Prior to that particular set of downs, a takeaway was something that we had a number of opportunities of being successful at. I made a decision not to, and I can't change the decision. But that was definitely an option to let them score, and it is part of your game-management call sheet. But I can't look back on it."
Fixed, then broken
If you believe in jinxes, then blame me for writing a story on the lack of penalties and a few stories on the improved special teams.
While talk radio and some fans hyperventilate about the Packers' perceived lack of discipline and the incompetence of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, let's wait and see. Why does one bad game (OK, one really, really, really bad game) outweigh two games with positive results?
"I thought our kickoff return was fine," McCarthy said, managing to find something that didn't make him nauseous from a special-teams unit that allowed one punt return for a touchdown, one punt return that set up a touchdown, allowed a blocked field goal, was penalized for kicking the ball out of bounds and flagged for an illegal block to ruin a good punt return.
Meanwhile, the Packers were hit with a team-record 18 penalties compared to five against the Bears. McCarthy had no interest in talking about the one glaring no-call of the night, an obvious hold against Derrick Martin on Hester's touchdown.
A few others, such as Morgan Burnett's killer pass interference penalty that put the nail in the coffin, were judgment calls that went against the Packers.
"A perfect example is Frank Zombo," McCarthy said of the rookie linebacker's roughing-the-passer penalty that took away a Nick Barnett interception that might have sewn up a Green Bay victory. "What do you tell your player on that particular play? He is on a pass rush, he spins inside and he spins into the quarterback, and he goes helmet-to-helmet just like the rule calls. Technically they are correct in throwing the flag there, but he is being held. He is being pulled from behind."
Why is no win ever as good as a loss is bad?
Yes, Monday's outcome was bitter: a tough-to-swallow loss against a hated rival in prime time. Still, it's just one loss.
Fact is, the Bears needed this game. They are a good team and they were riding the emotion of the home crowd. While there is plenty of shame in a team-record 18 penalties, the bad-to-worse antics on special teams and James Jones' grade-school fumble, there's no shame in losing that game in the big picture. Besides, Green Bay has a chance to even the score at home.
It's what happens from here that matters. If they can fix the fixable errors — the false starts and illegal formations and the blocked field goal, for instance — and continue to find ways to overcome the loss of Grant, there's no reason why this game shouldn't be simply a small bump in the road.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.