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Run, Hundley, Run: How the Packers can fix their third-and-short woes

Mike McCarthy has yet to unleash Brett Hundley the runner and it’s holding the offense back.

Baltimore Ravens v Green Bay Packers
Brett Hundley’s best attribute is his running ability, so why aren’t the Packers letting him use his legs?
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

My parents used to say “Can’t lives on Won’t Street.” It was a way of saying most times when we say we can’t do something, what we really mean is we won’t do that. We’d rather not do them.

Mike McCarthy wants Brett Hundley, his prized protege, to run his offense. The Mike McCarthy offense. He’s invested three years in Hundley. You’ve maybe heard him say this one or 4,000 times.

But listening to former NFL scout John Middlekauff on the Locked on Packers podcast Tuesday, I was struck by an observation he made. Why didn’t the Packers have a package of plays, a sort of “break in case of emergency” plan for Hundley.

Rodgers goes down, let’s say with a minor injury. He’s out a game or two. Where was the package of five or 10 plays designed for Hundley? Did we see them? Did I miss it? Did Hundley?

McCarthy all but admitted after the Minnesota Vikings game that plan would have to change with Hundley as the starter, a tacit admission he’d called a Rodgers game with Hundley under center.

That can’t work.

Baltimore’s ball-hawking defense made that abundantly clear on Sunday.

But it’s not as if Hundley has no ability. His arm talent has been evident; it’s been his ability to pull the trigger on between-the-numbers throws that have done him in. McCarthy hasn’t done the young quarterback many favors, starting with the reluctance to use Hundley’s athleticism and running ability in this offense.

Based on Relative Athlete Score, a measure of a player’s athleticism relative to others at the position, Brett Hundley is a better athlete than players like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick were coming out of college.

Those players thrived with zone-read concepts and option looks, and though they never really progressed past that, each found incredible succeed early in their careers with them.

Ask Charles Woodson, who is still somewhere in the Bay Area chasing after Kaepernick.

I’m not saying run the 2012 49ers offense. Do what Seattle and Dallas and Kansas City do with their athletic quarterbacks: run these concepts judiciously and when your offense needs a boost.

Russell Wilson progressed as a pocket passer to the point the Seahawks mostly stopped using the read-option as a core tenant of their offense, but they still break it out when their offense is in a rut or if they need a key first down.

The Cowboys kill teams in the red zone with Dak Prescott and the zone read.

Situational football calls for some creativity when a team lacks a star to make a play. Green Bay didn’t have to get cute on third down with Aaron Rodgers. He’d get a first down with sheer force of will.

Hundley? He’s 2/8 for nine yards on third-and-short this season to go with two picks and a sack.

This, more than anything, is why the Packers have struggled to put together a competent passing attack despite boasting one of the best run games in the league. Third-and-short is a greenlight special for an offense, but Hundley’s inability to be decisive with the ball restricts their effectiveness.

The answer is simple: Let him run it.

Or at the very least, make it an option.

Having a big, strong, physical player under center who isn’t a refined passer isn’t going to kill your offense if his team utilizes those skills in other ways. Look at Cam Newton. Even the Jaguars have started pulling out some zone read concepts for Blake Bortles.

I mean Blake freaking Bortles!

By my count, in four starts, Hundley’s run the ball on designed plays fewer than five total times. It should be five times a game. At least.

When Green Bay called this in the Saints game, I thought it was not only great timing — Green Bay had run the ball effectively all game, which sets up the zone-read — but the Packers needed a spark having given up the lead.

Look at Hundley’s athleticism shine here. The linebacker has him dead to rights in the backfield and he just beats him to the corner like a running back.

With an extra week to prepare, I assumed we’d see plays like this a few times a game.

Instead, we saw it ... once.

This is even better design because it uses the tight end on the edge as a de facto lead blocker. Detroit’s defensive end is completely fooled by the front-side zone action and if Lance Kendricks can get a block, this could have been a much bigger play.

Even without good blocking, this is an easy seven-yard gain.

Yes, it subjects Hundley to some hits, but they aren’t winning with Hundley right now anyway. Sure, it’ll be worse with Joe Callahan (a lot worse) but the result will be the same.

And it doesn’t have to be a J.T. Barrett-esque “run the QB 25 times” offense. You’ll notice both those zone reads came on second-and-longs.

Why not on third-and-short?

Here are two perfect examples, both third-and-3s, to illustrate how dangerous Hundley can be with his legs — not to mention another reason to go spread with him.

Instead of expecting Hundley to do something he’s uncomfortable doing — stepping up in the pocket — spread teams out and run a draw. Hundley does what he’s coached to do here, but he doesn’t do it often enough, so just make it part of the play.

This is a quarterback capable of shrugging off defenders, making men miss in the open field and turning third-and-3 at the 15 into first-and-10 at the 38.

How many quarterbacks in the league can do that with their feet?

Most quarterbacks with running ability like Hundley’s get coached to stay in the pocket, to keep plays alive. One of the reason’s Hundley struggled later in his UCLA career was insisting on being a pocket passer and not taking off when the first option wasn’t there.

Here’s a great example of why it can make sense to say “if it’s not there, either dump it off or take off.” That’s how most young quarterbacks are taught to play in high school and college.

Hundley is athletic enough to make it work in the pros too.

Get to the top of your drop, if it’s not there or you feel pressure, step up (the “up” part is critical) and take off. Just get the first down.

There were even some plays Sunday against the Ravens when Hundley finally started to step up into the pocket instead of bailing to the outside where he picked up key first downs with his feet.

Teams are going to play man coverage, not give up any easy throws underneath and force Hundley to make plays when he holds the ball, something John Harbaugh openly admitted he was excited to do against the Packers.

Opponents aren’t going to be scared of Hundley’s arm, so why not make them afraid of his legs?

Defenses particularly prefer man coverage on third-and-short. They rarely blitz. And if teams start to get wise to Green Bay wanting to use Hundley in the run game and start to spy him, that’s one less defender they can drop in coverage.

The offense doesn’t have to be complicated to be good: run, run, and on third and manageable, give Hundley the option to run or pass. And don’t even get me started on why McCarthy hasn’t gone to more RPO’s.

It’s not that Brett Hundley can’t be an effective quarterback, it’s that Mike McCarthy won’t call a game that suits what Hundley does best.

It seems that he’d rather prove Hundley can play in his offense, the same sort of dissonance that nearly ruined Colin Kaepernick’s career the first time. Jim Harbaugh wanted to prove he could coach Kaep up and turn him into a modern QB.

Allowing Brett Hundley to play in an offense suited to him would be tantamount to admitting defeat for McCarthy. It would also force him to admit maybe signing the aforementioned Kaepernick — even just to back up Hundley — in an offense that suits them would be a good idea.

Won’t Street must intersect with McCarthy Way.