I think it was Woody Hayes that said that three things can happen when a team throws the ball and two of them are bad (incompletion, interception). A good running game leads to a multitude of positive side effects, such as ball control and the ability to run play action passes.
During training camp, the Packers talked about being committed to the run. They installed a new scheme, the infamous "zone blocking" system. Wildly successful in Denver and to a lesser degree in Atlanta, it would be the cure to what ailed the Packer running game the last year or so. The new scheme and the commitment to the run sounded good back in August.
Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Samkon Gado entered the season primed for rebirth. All three were coming off injuries, and everyone hoped they were healthy and would adapt to the new system quickly. Davenport and Gado never got it and two weeks into the regular season, they are gone. Gone too is that commitment to the run, or so it seems after the Saints game.
While the Packers had a decent day running the ball against Chicago last week, much of the yardage was gained in garbage time, when the Bears were playing the pass and conceding the run. Regardless, it boded well for the team that Green looked quick and potent. The only positive thing this week was a 16-yard end around by Donald Driver.
Due to a rash of turnovers by the Saints, the Packers were up early 13-0. There is never a better time to unleash the running game then when you are up. Run the ball, control the clock and go home.
Here is the run down (no pun intended) of the plays called the rest of the half after the Pack got up by 13. On the next drive they threw the ball three times for seven yards and a punt – no runs. The drive after that was three incomplete passes. The next one was three passes and three runs and a punt. With 56 seconds left in the half, the Packers got the ball back and attempted four passes, three of which fell incomplete. 13 passes and three runs. The score at halftime was, 14-13 Saints.
So much for the commitment to the run. Even if you throw out the last drive because it was two-minute drill time, the Packers still threw the ball three times as much as they ran it, allowing the Saints a chance to get back in the game.
Just to frame the situation, there was 50 seconds left in the first quarter when Green Bay went up by 13. For the next 15:50, they ran 16 plays. The Saints ran 27 plays in that time. At halftime, Brett Favre had attempted 22 passes (remember, 13 of those were after they were up by 13) and the team had only rushed the ball 7 times (three of those after the 13 point lead). By the end of the game, they had rushed the ball only 20 times and Favre had slinged it 55. Being behind for much of the second half, I would expect them to throw a lot, but where was the ground game in the first half when they were up and could have used the run to grind the clock and take control? Did the Coaching staff assume coming into the game that they could not run the ball? Did they out-think themselves and try and outsmart the Saints by passing when they should have run the thing? Did the Saints game plan to take away the run?
I do not have the answers to those questions and do not suppose that the men with the answers will be filling me in anytime soon. They probably do not know the answers themselves. I was under the impression that this team was going to run it even if it is not working. I figured they would do so. It makes sense to run the ball under this scenario. Get up by around two scores and burn the clock. Line up and knock it back.
Too many things happened on Sunday that are troubling. Last week, I do not think that the beating was as bad as it looked. This week, I do not think it was as close as the score. Without Favre being on his game and those early turnovers, the Packers had no chance. The defense kept the Saints running game in check and Reggie Bush did not really hurt them. Drew Brees overcame a couple of fumbles and a pick to put up some monster numbers. Aaron Kampman and Charles Woodson and Donald Driver played well, but Bubba Franks had an awful game. I guess the Packers dropped between seven and nine passes, Franks having around four of those. Ahman Green did a lot of things well, but fumbled the ball and dropped a couple of passes. Not good. The offensive line was not given much of a chance to establish a run game, but they only allowed Favre to be sacked 2 times in 55 chances. Could have been worse.
The Lions are up next and the Packers historically struggle in Detroit. After that, a trip to Philly – which has its own bad memories. The Rams come to town before the bye and are an enigma, beating the Broncos and losing to the 49ers. Is it conceivable that the Packers could be 0-5? Yes. Can they win one of those games or two of them or all of them? Sure, but not with Favre throwing the ball 55 times.
Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.