Edgar Bennett, who was drafted by the Packers and played for the Packers from 1992-96, will be completing his first full season as the team's running backs coach after Sunday's game against the Seahawks. Outside of defensive coordinator Jim Bates, perhaps no other assistant coach has been more valuable to the team.
Under dire circumstances, Bennett's backs have come the longest way compared to any position grouping on the team. While the names and numbers have changed seemingly each week, the production at running back has gotten better. It easily could have and probably should have gotten worse.
Five different running backs – Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, Tony Fisher, ReShard Lee, and Samkon Gado - have started this season for the Packers. Two others – Walt Williams and Noah Herron – have also seen time in the backfield. Green (quad tendon) and Davenport (ankle) have been on injured reserve for most of the year missing 20 games combined headed into the regular season finale. Fisher missed two games in November due to a cracked rib and Gado sprained his MCL two weeks ago against Baltimore. Lee was waived after being placed on injured reserve on Dec. 1. Eight years ago was the last time the Packers had even as many as four different running backs suit up as starters in a season.
On Wednesday, head coach Mike Sherman was asked which group of backups has stepped up the most this season and he quickly pointed to the running backs.
"I would say that was probably a surprise when you're dealing with the amount of injuries at that position," he said. "Certainly you lose a player like Ahman Green, then we lost Najeh Davenport, and a list of other guys who have been here and now aren't. ... I think Noah Herron did a nice job for us the other day. So I was pleased with that group and how it held up throughout the season."
In many ways, though Sherman did not direct say it, Bennett has been a major reason for the group's improvement. He has a relationship with players, fostered over the past four years as the team's director of player programs, that has transferred onto the practice field. Because of that, he is unlike many other coaches.
Players may play the game, but coaches get them prepared. Regardless of who the Packers have had in the backfield, Bennett has had each back ready to play each week.
"It's just one of those situations where you try to do the best you can and get the guys ready to go out there and give it their all," said Bennett of dealing with the inordinate amount of injuries. "We've been fortunate to have a great group of guys who have been willing to put in the extra time to put themselves in a situation to succeed on the field."
Gado's strides under Bennett's tutelage have been most impressive. Gado missed last week's game against Chicago and is listed as out on the injury report for Sunday's game against the Seahawks, but before he was injured, he was making remarkable improvement in just over a month with the team. He was seeing running lanes better, cutting down on his earlier fumbling problems, and setting several Packers' rookie rushing marks along the way. He became a weapon and is expected to be considered for the starting running back spot next season.
"I think he has all of the tools to be a featured back, but more importantly I think he has the desire to be a featured back," said Bennett. "I think when you look at him from an athlete standpoint, I think he has the size, the speed, he can catch, he can do a lot of things, he has good foot quickness, but then there's that intangible quality and I think he has that.
"He came in on the practice squad and really didn't have a practice-squad mentality. The kid would come in on his day off on a Tuesday and watch tape and study. He's truly a student of the game. We're talking about going above and beyond. I don't know how many guys would come in on their day off, on the practice squad, knowing you're not playing on Sunday, but you're going to come in and study and do all the things to help you get better."
Even with Gado's intangibles considered, Bennett should receive equal credit for getting his rookie running back up to speed. Perhaps no other coach spent more time with Gado and that time has been well spent. Gado's play has been reflective of his rookie coach's philosophy.
"Without a doubt, it's fundamentals," said Bennett. "Just like anything, that's you're starting point. That's your foundation."
That is just exactly the kind of coach the Packers' needed this year for their unforeseen problems at running back. Keeping it simple and good natured, like Bennett did when he played, has helped the Packers' rushing attack find some measure of success.
In five of the last seven games, the Packers posted team rushing totals of over 100 yards. They did that only once in the first eight games with Green and Davenport healthy for much of that time. Better offensive line play and the diligence of the running backs as a group have helped improve the Packers' rushing average from 71.9 yards per game in the first half of the season to 101.3 in the second half.
Should Sherman not be retained by general manager Ted Thompson when this season is over, Bennett would be a likely candidate to stay on as an assistant with a new coach because of his reputation and potential. He may be far from a polished coach in some ways, but he more than makes up for it in other ways, like being respected by players and being able to handle adversity.
The Packers' running back situation may take on another different look next year as injuries and free agency cloud the future. Though Green and Davenport are ahead of schedule with their rehabilitation, they are scheduled to become free agents following the season along with Fisher and fullback William Henderson. There may not be a better coach to deal with such wholesale changes, should they occur, than Bennett. After all, he has been through it this year and that makes him a valuable asset in the future.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at email@example.com.