Leader of the backs

PackerReport.com correspondent Tyler Dunne has watched assistant coach Edgar Bennett work daily in training camp with the Packers' young running backs. Dunne explains how Bennett's experience and guidance has helped young running backs make an immediate impact for the Packers.

When Edgar Bennett was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round of the 1992 NFL Draft, he was thrown into a heap of backs muddled in the post-Tony Mandarich/Barry Sanders haze. (Just imagine if Tom Braatz gave in to Lindy Infante in the '89 war room).

Bennett joined Vince Workman, Darrell Thompson, and Packer Report's own Harry Sydney in Green Bay's crowded '92 backfield. Without one go-to guy, the team still made a five-win improvement from 1991.

The next season, the Packers made the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

Three seasons later they were Super Bowl champions.

No-names can bring rings. Bennett and fifth round pick Dorsey Levens were nothing but mid-round flyers. Yet the duo combined for 2,460 total yards and 17 touchdowns in 1996 and drove Dom Capers to the brink of insanity in the NFC title game. In a one-back obsessed NFL, Bennett and Levens became living proof that unselfishness can prevail. And a tag-team approach can succeed.

Now Bennett is putting his Florida State social science bachelor's degree to use.

Green Bay's third year running backs coach can recognize a pattern when he sees one.

"When Dorsey and I first came in, we weren't household names," Bennett said. "People didn't know who we were other than the round we got drafted in the school we were from. It's a very similar situation to now. These kids need an opportunity and I think they'll make the most of their opportunities. So I'm excited for them and our team."

During the annual shareholders' meeting in July, general manager Ted Thompson described society's ‘natural gravitation' toward superstars. The general belief is that starting skill position players should be the highest draft picks and the highest paid. There is a natural association between huge investments and wins at the running back more than any position.

Excluding last year's extremely rare draft class, teams that invest first round picks in running backs have been awfully inconsistent.

From 2002-05, ten running backs have been drafted in the first round. Those teams are a combined 251-276-1 after investing their first pick on a back. Even those which had the best seasons in that span- the 2006 Chicago Bears and 2004 Atlanta Falcons- weren't exactly reliant on Cedric Benson and T.J. Duckett. Thomas Jones and Warrick Dunn were their primary bread winners. Duckett ('02) is on his third life in Detroit and may be cut, ex-Cleveland Browns back William Green ('02) is out of the NFL and Cincinnati's Chris Perry ('04), currently is on the physically unable to perform list (and probably would be let go anyways with Rudi Johnson, Kenny Watson, and Kenny Irons in the fold).

More than any other position, running backs can shine in the NFL as low draft picks or even as undrafted free agents. Bennett knows this truth. He didn't even crack the first 100 picks of the NFL Draft. Five seasons later, he sits as the team's ninth all-time leading rusher. Levens? He was the 149th overall pick in 1994 draft, and he is fifth on the list.

"Even though I was a fourth round draft pick, I didn't come in with a fourth round draft pick mind," Bennett said. "I came in with the mindset that I want to be a part of this team, number one. And number two, when I got my opportunities, I wanted to make the most of them, so the coaching staff would trust and believe in me."

It's about attitude. Green Bay's 2007 cavalry is learning quickly from Bennett.

The Right Man for the Job
At times it seems the only people that believe in Green Bay's 2007 backfield are Thompson, Mike McCarthy and Bennett. The screaming for Larry Johnson or Michael Turner is at its max with Vernand Morency and P.J. Pope sidelined with knee injuries.

Is this 1998 and 2005 all over again? Will Thompson be forced to stumble through December with a Darick Holmes or a Samkon Gado?

Don't count on it. Brandon Jackson, Noah Herron, DeShawn Wynn, and Corey White aren't patchwork slouches. Thompson started camp with a large amount of tailbacks (six). Just because two are down, the steadfast Thompson will not punch the panic button.

"We had six to start with," Thompson said. "We're now at four, which is oftentimes, certainly when we were in Seattle, the number that we would go to training camp, so we think we're OK, knock on wood, but we wouldn't want to get too many more nicks."

The nicks won't slow down Bennett. The departure of workhorse Ahman Green immediately raised durability concerns in Green Bay's backfield. When Morency went down, the concerns turned into media/fan/message board mayhem.

Bennett hasn't flinched. Just as he did in '05, when he turned the team's fifth starter (Gado) into the second most productive rookie back in Packer history, Bennett looks ahead.

Every day at practice, he works his group harder than any position coach. The backs are buying into Bennett's push-yourself-to-the-limit demands. You can see the coach's loud, energetic tone fuels the backs during practice. They aren't thinking like outcasts. The backs haven't adopted an ‘us vs. the world' mentality, but it's close.

"We have some good guys back there contrary to the criticism we've been getting," Herron said last week. "We have the ability to make a lot of plays."

In Bennett's drills, no second is wasted and no learning tool is left on the sideline with the press.

"I think Edgar has a very good feel for his troops, and I think they respond well to his coaching," Thompson said. "He's also a stickler for drills and things like that, as you guys well know. I call him high-maintenance, because he's got more equipment out there than any other position."

Thompson knows Bennett is the right guy at the right time.

"I'm not one of those people that think that you have to have played to be a good coach. But I think since he's walked in their shoes before, there's a certain understanding, a certain amount of empathy on Edgar's part to guys. I think his playing career and his experience helps him both as a coach. It also helps him in terms of the regard his players have for him."

Above all, Bennett is spreading unselfishness. Achieving harmony at such an ego-driven position is nothing short of a miracle. Bennett's been there. He gradually lost carries when Levens broke out. But it netted him a ring.

"That's the mindset here," he said. "They want to get better. They know that at the level we're competing at on a daily basis they are only going to make themselves stronger and the team stronger."

The West Coast Running Back
Roger Craig and Ricky Watters were never asked to set the tone.

San Francisco's Bill Walsh and George Seifert didn't try to punish defenses in the trenches. Instead, short, effective horizontal passing was utilized to set up the run. Craig and Watters were game-breakers in this pattern. Today, Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook is the prototype.

Westbrook has durability issues. But the Eagles use him wisely. Andy Reid established Walsh's principle in Philly and it has turned a career third down back into one of the NFC's most lethal weapons.

Walsh's offense is about the system, not the player.

Even though Westbrook set the all-time NCAA record for all-purpose yards (9,512) at Villanova, teams were hesitant to draft him because of his diminutive size and questionable DI-AA competition. But he fit the West Coast offense.

Parallels exist with Brandon Jackson. At Nebraska, he wasn't a full-time starter and he had injury concerns after two shoulder surgeries. But his blend of great hands and natural ability to ‘see the green' mirror Jackson (5-10, 210 lbs.) with Westbrook (5-8, 203 lbs.) beyond size. Both possess underrated leg strength and sudden quickness.

Skeptics believe Green Bay needs another Ahman Green. They don't. The Packers will not run the ball 507 times as they did in 2003. Green's 1,883 rushing yards that season will be the franchise rushing benchmark for a long time. This season expect McCarthy to evolve into a more traditional West Coast coach. Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Ruvell Martin all have the ability to go across the middle, dink-and-dunk teams to death, and do damage after the catch (Green Bay was second in the NFL with 2,161 yards after the catch in '06).

Jackson, Herron, and/or Morency will be supplementary. The former two have the open field prowess to execute the West Coast scheme far better than an aging Green could. As Jackson showcased on Family Night with a diving 25-yard catch, he can be used split out and in the slot as a pass receiver. Throw in a healthy Morency as a change-of-pace back and Green Bay has a more than adequate stable of ball carriers behind Favre. Morency proved he can handle this role last season, torching San Francisco for 9.9 yards a pop and Detroit for 7.7 on minimal carries. That's his role. And maybe DeShawn Wynn will fill a short yardage role. There are lots of options.

"They all bring something different to the table," Bennett said. "They are all unique in their own way. I think they can be extremely productive.

If one back gets hot, he'll be fed more carries. McCarthy, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, and Bennett will base the running game on momentum.

"It can be a committee but if a guy steps forward as a workhorse-type back we can obviously go that route," Bennett said. "I think that in today's game you need more than just one good running back with the injuries that occur week to week. I think we have guys on our roster that can jump in and be productive."

If McCarthy wants a blueprint, take the '04 Eagles, which won the NFC. That season, McNabb completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes and Westbrook amassed 812 yards rushing and 703 yards receiving on 73 receptions with nine total touchdowns. Westbrook's partner in crime? Dorsey Levens, who had 414 yards and four TD's. Funny how things come full circle.

Editor's note: Click on Bennett and McCarthy for their comments to Tyler Dunne on the Packers' top three running backs.

Tyler Dunne

Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University. He is in Green Bay covering the Packers during training camp for PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.

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