What a difference one year can make.
At this point last year, Ryan Grant was the undisputed king of the Green Bay Packers’ backfield. For all the talk of a shared workload and how two ball-carriers are better than one, the Packers’ running game had been Grant left, Grant right and Grant up the middle ever since he burst onto the scene midway through the 2007 season.
In fact, in 2008 and 2009, when Grant ripped off back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons — one of just four backs in the NFL to achieve that during that span — he had a whopping 79.4 percent of all rushing attempts (not including from the quarterbacks).
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Grant, it turns out, was taken for granted. When he went down in the opener at Philadelphia, the Packers’ running game went nowhere fast. Not until James Starks burst onto the scene in the playoffs could Green Bay have something even approaching balance in its offense.
Now what? Grant has deemed himself healthy and ready to regain his spot in the starting lineup. Starks, if he can stay healthy, will battle to be the top dog. Brandon Jackson is a free agent who figures to shop himself in hopes of getting a bigger hand on offense than just the third-down role he’d serve in Green Bay. Third-round pick Alex Green has the build of a workhorse running back and the skills to play on third down. John Kuhn, who had a hand on third down late in the season, was a savior at times while switching between halfback and fullback. He, too, is a free agent but told Packer Report recently that he’d like to return.
Grant says he’s open to being the backup “if it was in the best interest of the team” but is focused on returning to form as he enters the last year of his contract, which has a cap value of $5.65 million.
“I would think so,” Grant said on Milwaukee radio station WSSP last week when asked if he’s considered the starter. “I don’t know. From what I’ve heard, that’s the conversation that was told to me. … I was told that by (former running backs coach Edgar Bennett), initially. Jerry (Fontenot, the new position coach) didn’t tell me that anything changed. Jerry told me that as of right now I’m still the leader of the backfield and the expectations won’t change. … I do believe there will be competition, which is fine. I’m all for that.”
The questions at fullback aren’t nearly as intriguing but they’re big, nonetheless. For the past two seasons, coach Mike McCarthy has gone into the season with Kuhn, Korey Hall and Quinn Johnson at fullback. With a glut of talent at tight end and the tight ends’ ability to play fullback, it wouldn’t be farfetched to see the Packers keep just one fullback. Hall is a free agent and the inconsistent Johnson wasn’t even active for the Super Bowl.
The man charged with sorting it all out has changed, too. Fontenot, who played center for 16 NFL seasons, had been the Packers’ assistant offensive line coach for the previous four seasons. He’s got big shoes to fill. Under Bennett, Grant made USA Football’s All-Fundamentals Team for not fumbling on any of his 282 carries in 2009 and Jackson hasn’t lost a fumble in his career.
“When I played, I always wanted to know what the running backs were thinking,” Fontenot told Packer Report during one of our exclusive lockout interviews. “They oftentimes would ask us what we saw. There’s a lot of banter back and forth and discussion and communication. So, that part of it doesn’t change in my eyes. That’s the way it’s always been and something that we’ve all taken part in as far as knowing where our reads are and what can happen on any particular play. The pass game is what I’ve been spending most of my time on and being able to digest the multitude of checkdowns that we have because you can’t put one checkdown with one pass protection. It can changed based on the routes of the receivers. I have a great deal of respect for what Edgar Bennett did with these guys. Obviously, he played the position but still, he had a keen understanding of the offense. That’s where I want to be.”
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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.