Since coming to Green Bay four years ago, he has all but preached that the Packers would assume the identity of a running team. No louder were those words than this past training camp, when his offense seemed poised to find offensive balance with a healthy Ryan Grant at running back and a more stable offensive line.
But four games into the 2009 season, the Packers have never been less of a running team with McCarthy at the helm.
Entering this week's game with the Lions, the Packers are averaging just 23.5 rushing attempts per game, fourth lowest in the league. When compared to the Packers' season-ending averages over the past three years, that number is the lowest in the McCarthy era.
The decrease in attempts has raised a red flag for McCarthy. On Monday, he offered this assessment: "Our two biggest issues on offense are the negative plays, and the dropped balls. There's some other statistical things that we looked at, but the things we took a close look at is the negative plays, and particularly the sacks fall in that category, and the dropped balls because we're taking sets of downs off the field that we should easily convert. Those are things we can control. Those are probably our two biggest focuses coming out of this bye week."
While sacks can be attributed directly to the Packers' problems in pass protection, when those sacks are occurring is also a problem. The Packers have used the pass aggressively on first down, which in turn has produced only a marginal rate of success measured against the risk of failure.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has attempted 54 passes on first down, completing 31 for 362 yards and one touchdown. The Packers have produced 18 plays of 10 yards or more on those attempts, but have also yielded 11 sacks, a staggering number considering first down is traditionally a conservative down. Throw in the 23 incomplete passes on first down and the Packers have spent far too much time in second- and third-and-long situations. That makes sustaining drives a difficult task.
By contrast, the Packers have netted 178 yards on 44 runs on first down, good for just more than 4 yards per attempt. While that yardage-per-attempt number may pale in comparison to the pass, only four of those runs have yielded negative yardage and three with no gain.
In other words, the Packers are gaining yardage 84 percent of the time on first down when they run the ball vs. just 67 percent when they drop back to pass.
Ryan Grant has not gotten a lot of opportunities. Jonathan Daniel/Getty
Overall, the 99.8 yards per game the Packers are averaging on the ground (22nd in the league) equals the worst mark under McCarthy. His three-year average prior to this season was 105.5, so even looking at the big picture, the Packers have always used their running game as a complement, not as a tone setter.
Grant, the Packers' featured back, has struggled to return to his form of 2007, the only season in which the Packers' running game was a consistent factor under McCarthy. Grant was one of the most explosive backs in the league that season, averaging more 20-yard-plus runs per carry than anyone in the league (one every 17.1 attempts). He ran for 1,130 yards and 11 touchdowns during an 11-game stretch (including a playoff game).
This season, Grant is still searching a long run. On 67 carries, his biggest gain has been just 17 yards, the longest of the year for the Packers. Only one NFL team (the Chargers) has a shorter longest gain on the ground.
Far too often, Grant has left too many yards on the field. His burst into the hole has been lacking and he has looked as uncomfortable as ever in the Packers' scheme. As a result, he has toted just 3.8 yards per carry, 0.1 lower than an injury-slowed 2008 season that included just four 100-yard performances in 16 games.
Grant's 16.8 carries per game is down three carries per game from a year ago. Considering that each of the first three games were close contests, questions reasonably could be raised as to why the rushing attempts have been so low.
Though McCarthy never really has practiced what he has preached, this week could be a start. The Packers are coming off a bye week, facing the 1-4 Lions, a team they have beaten 18 straight times at home. Detroit ranks 21st in the league against the run, so Sunday may be the best chance yet to give the running game a bigger role.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org