Green Bay’s most recent offseasons has proved that General Manager Ted Thompson is not a fan of free agency.
Green Bay’s most recent game proved that Thompson must at least be a mild participant when the NFL’s March Madness strikes in 15 days.
The score read 23-20. The reason read 134-28. The New York Giants were in the Packers’ zone-blocking playbook from start-to-finish and Mike McCarthy had no other option in the running game – unlike the G-Men. Brandon Jacobs opened the wound and Ahmad Bradshaw poured salt into it. Each back rushed for more than 60 yards, while the former had a touchdown and the latter had a 48-yard score called back.
Meanwhile, Ryan Grant ran into a heap of bodies on each of his 13 carries.
A two-man attack allowed the Giants to control the ball as if they were a basketball team in the pre-shot clock era. Playing keep-away, Jacobs and Bradshaw combined for 37 carries and New York dominated the time of possession, 40:01 to 22:34. Sans Giants miscues, the NFC Championship could have been a three-touchdown game, instead of a three-point game because of Jacobs (6-4, 264) and Bradshaw (5-9, 198).
Grant is undoubtedly the answer to Green Bay’s once-sad running game. But he needs a running mate. And since Rudy Giuliani refused to autograph a Packers hat along his campaign trail, Thompson must look elsewhere.
One possible answer can be found within the division. Although his name has flirted with first-round flop status, soon-to-be unrestricted free agent T.J. Duckett could be the final piece to a championship puzzle in Titletown. A relatively-cheap, two-year, $7 million-type of contract is worth a shot at obtaining an offensive dimension every contender has and every pretender craves: A two-headed monster. If Thompson prefers the younger variety, then a second- or third-round draft pick would be worth the investment.
Either way, a power, complementary running back must become a staple to the Packers’ second-ranked offense next season.
Last season sure looked like year of the quarterback for the season’s first 19 weeks. Ten quarterbacks threw for at least 26 touchdowns and seven threw for more than 4,000 yards. The playoffs alone consisted of six MVP signal-callers. But in the end, as our granddads promised, a strong rush offense and run defense prevailed. Thompson shouldn’t fight the cliché and continue building a passing team. There are three years worth of Super Bowl blueprints as warnings. Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker combined for 136 yards and a touchdown to beat Seattle two years ago. Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai went for 190 and one against Chicago’s fifth-ranked rush defense. And then Jacobs and Bradshaw did the unthinkable, knocking off the most prolific single-season passer, receiver, and team the league has ever seen.
Duckett isn’t Jacobs, but he’s also not DeShawn Wynn.
After six seasons, three different teams and the persistent inability to secure a starting gig, Duckett would most likely embrace a specialized role on a title contender. Duckett’s best season came in 2003 when he ran for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns – as the third rung on Atlanta’s “D.V.D.” backfield. He wanted more, left the Falcons, flamed out in Washington and got stuck in the Lions’ backfield mess behind Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell for most of 2007. Still, albeit quietly, Duckett enjoyed an unnoticed, late-season resurgence with 252 yards on 51 carries (5.0 avg.) in his final six games, including 102 yards and a TD against Kansas City’s 13th ranked rush defense.
Duckett has been a disappointment to those that envisioned him as a modern-day Earl Campbell. He hasn’t stayed healthy and his two-star speed is only a slight step above Najeh Davenport. But through six up-and-down seasons as a No. 2 back, Duckett was bred to be what Green Bay needs next season.
After instilling the mechanical zone-blocking scheme in Denver and turning Terrell Davis into a 2,000-yard MVP, offensive line coach Alex Gibbs took his genius (and controversial) system to Atlanta in 2004. With Warrick Dunn as the subject of the system (1106 yards, 9 touchdowns), Michael Vick as a constant threat (902-3) and Duckett as the bulldozer (509-8), the Falcons went from 5-11 in ’03 to 11-5 and one game away from the Super Bowl. Duckett’s role was diminished in this transition, but he was more effective. Atlanta’s passing game dipped to a Pop Warner-level, defenses knew Atlanta was going to run, they did, and it still worked.
What happens when you blend a tailor-made ZBS back (Grant) with an abnormally large change-of-pace back (Duckett) and instead of Vick throwing passes to Peerless Price and Brian Finneran, Brett Favre is throwing passes to Donald Driver and Greg Jennings?
Duckett could anchor a new smash-mouth play set for the Packers – something to turn when the ZBS is derailed, or simply needs a rest. Simple off-tackle and up-the-gut dives were almost nonexistent last year, outside of an inverted wishbone package. Adding a needed weapon to an already-loaded offense could take Green Bay’s offense to an inconceivable level.
Duckett’s career is at a crossroads. A 10-carry-a-game role in the Packers’ backfield is probably the best offer he’ll receive.
But the Packers need Duckett more than he needs them. Drafting a younger, 245-plus-pound running back seems more logical, but this year’s loaded RB draft class lacks such specimens.
The ultra-patient Thompson will be tempted to let Wynn grow into the “big back” role. Before a season-ending shoulder injury, the 232-pound Wynn was somewhat effective with four touchdowns on 50 carries, averaging 4.1 a clip.
But it is wishful thinking to expect Wynn to fulfill the automatic, three yards and a cloud of dust back Green Bay needs to complement the home-run hitting Grant. Wynn runs as if he’s 30 pounds lighter than he is. The “lazy” stigma that dogged him at Florida sporadically resurfaced during the summer and into the season when he regularly took himself off the field. Wynn is an enigma, 25 percent boom, 75 percent bust sophomore, who lacks the bruising presence the Packers’ offense thirsts for.
So what if Duckett will never be a full-time starter? He isn’t elusive. He lacks open field speed (see: two runs over 50 yards in six years). So what?
Green Bay has that, in Grant.
In a span of 11 days, McCarthy saw what happens when the scheme is at its best … and at its worst. At Seattle, against a finesse defense, lanes opened up and mediocre guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz washed down linebackers. But against an attacking defense, like New York, defenders beat guards to the spot and collapsed the line of scrimmage, giving Grant no chance. The Packers lack a runner who can deviate from the zone-blocking scheme and create manageable third down situations. The Packers’ final two offensive drives in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship ended with third-and-10, and third-and-15 short passes of submission.
The ZBS is rhythm-based, and for nine of 12 games Grant was dominant. He had 11 runs of 20 yards or more, compiling the most rushing yards this side of LaDainian Tomlinson in the final 10 games. Unfortunately, one of those three bad games came when it mattered most. Adding a power package to the running game would have avoided the “We have no choice but to pass” attitude that dominated the Giants loss.
The Packers’ backfield is light-years ahead of where it was last year at this time. The hard work is done. Grant enters next season as the Packers unquestioned thoroughbred.
Now the team needs a heavier horse to make a good running game great.
Tyler Dunne is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.