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Assessing the value of running backs to the Packers’ offense and the NFL

One APC writer feels the Packers should focus on receiving and blocking skills and that inside power running is actually a net negative for the offense.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-New York Giants at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

All of you are bad at judging the value of a running back. From Rob Demovsky advocating the Green Bay Packers kick the tires on unrepentant scumbag and bad football player Adrian Peterson, to both Mel Kiper and Todd McShay consistently predicting the Packers will draft a RB, to the constant talk of the Packers having a gaping hole at the position and Montgomery not being an every down back, every single person who talks about running backs in the context of the Packers is insane.

It’s not entirely your fault. You have all been raised from an early age to believe that you need to run to set up the pass, or that between the tackles running is “real” running, or that running is necessary to winning. You’ve all been led to believe backs are important, valuable pieces of an offense because they are players of action who carry the ball, and you’ve also been trained to watch the ball far too much. You see the Steelers collapse without Le’Veon Bell, and you remember Barry Sanders doing insane things, and Emmitt Smith owning the mid-90s Packers. I am sorry to say that this has made all of you crazy. All NFL announcers and talking heads have been feeding you garbage.

The fact is that running backs can be, and are, an important part of a given NFL offense, just not in the ways you think. The fact is that Ty Montgomery is perfectly capable of being an every-down back in the Packer offense as much as Eddie Lacy was, and he is in fact a vastly superior candidate, especially if he can improve his pass protection. If he can’t, Aaron Ripkowski is more than serviceable in that area. The fact is that successfully running between the tackles is, for a Packer back, a negative trait if that running back can’t succeed in the passing game, and this is the point that everyone misses. There is an opportunity cost to running plays, and coaches in the NFL are terrible at understanding this.

The Ricardian Economics of Running and Passing

One of the basic principles of economics and trade is comparative advantage. To explain comparative advantage, let’s posit that Aaron Rodgers is not just the greatest football player on earth, he is also the greatest cleaner of toilets on earth. When Aaron Rodgers cleans a toilet, they are sparkling, beautiful, and suitable for open heart surgery. Let’s also posit that Skip Bayless, a useless commentator on sports who actively makes the world worse by trolling morons for a living, is decent, but not great at cleaning toilets. Aaron Rodgers provides great value to the world by putting on breathtaking displays of football. If he takes time off to clean a bunch of toilets in the palatial manor I assume he inhabits, the world is deprived of some brilliant football. Skip Bayless isn’t as good at cleaning toilets, but if Aaron Rodgers pays Skip to clean the 12 toilets in his house, we all benefit. Aaron gets to play more football and Skip earns useful income doing something worthwhile, even though he’s not as good at Aaron at cleaning toilets.

What on earth does this have to do with football? For his career, Aaron Rodgers averages 7.9 yards per pass attempt. Eddie Lacy averages 4.4 yards per carry. Adrian Peterson, who is now an old man (in football terms) coming off a major injury, and also a bad human, averages 4.9 yards per carry. Every time Mike McCarthy calls a running play, he is forgoing Aaron Rodgers doing what he does best (throwing the ball) at 7.9 yards a clip to let someone else do something vastly inferior, even if they succeed by their own standard. And because NFL coaches are NFL coaches, a good running back will tempt them into making this poor transaction far too often. Yes, there are reasons to run the ball some amount — to keep defenses honest — but that amount is generally quite small, especially when your quarterback is among the greatest ever to play. Eddie Lacy could put together a brilliant 1,200-yard season of 5.0 YPC between the tackles running and it could still be a total disaster if it deprived Rodgers of significant pass attempts.

Don’t believe me? Adrian Peterson ran for over 2000 yards in 2012. 2000 yards and 6 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns, and what did it get the Vikings? It got them the NFC’s 9th-best offense. The Vikings went 10-6 (though their pythagorean record suggested they should have been 9-7) and were outscored in the NFC by New Orleans, Washington, Green Bay, New York, Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay. Then the Packers trounced them in the playoffs because, as it turned out, having a 2,000 yard back doesn’t matter when Joe Webb is playing quarterback. That game taught everyone an important lesson. You may have the greatest running back in the world, but without a decent quarterback, that is worth precisely nothing.

Brandon Jackson

There is a small contingent of Packer fans, myself included, who think that the best Packer running back in the post-Ahman Green era is Brandon Jackson, who had 355 carries over a 5 year span with the team, culminating in a truly superb 2010 season. He was deemed ineffective and supplanted by James Starks for the Super Bowl run, but until then, Jackson was basically my platonic ideal for a Packer back. Why do I think Jackson is better than Eddie Lacy, Ty Montgomery (so far), Ryan Grant, James Starks, Ced Benson, Kuuuuuuhn, and all of the no-names who have trudged through the Packer backfield?

  1. Jackson was one of the best pass blockers I have ever seen play the position. In blitz pickup he rarely, if ever made a mistake, and kept Aaron upright better than just about everyone else.
  2. Jackson was a fantastic receiver, catching 86% of his passes in 2010 and almost always hovering around the 80% mark. He was 3rd in receiving DVOA in 2010.
  3. And, he did something with those receptions, averaging 7.7 yards per reception for his career, and a solid 8.0 in 2010 when he saw the most work. In the 2010 playoffs he caught 5 of 8 targets for 12.8 yards per reception.
  4. As a runner he wasn’t a disaster, but he wasn’t good enough for a coach to want to force carries on him. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry for his career. He was good enough that a coach could run him if necessary, but his other skills meant that they were more likely to lean pass.

Yes, it is true that on the Packers it is valuable to have a back who excels in all phases of the passing game, but is an imperfect runner. One of the biggest crimes of the Rodgers era is the lack of pass-catching backs, or pass-blocking specialists that have served behind him. Eddie Lacy is a good player in a vacuum, but he’s actually not a great fit on this team, at least as an every down back. He could be valuable if used properly, as the Patriots employ LeGarrette Blount when matchups dictate a power-running attack is warranted, but most of the time (52.6% of the time) they had James White or Dion Lewis on the field instead. As there is only one Bill Belichick, most NFL coaches with good-to-great quarterbacks will probably continue to run too much between the tackles with “every down backs,” McCarthy included.

Adrian Peterson

I hope Adrian Peterson remains a Viking. Actually, I’d prefer he not play football at all, but if he does I would much prefer he remain on a hated rival. If the Viking front office has a collective brain in their heads, they will send him walking and make him a free agent.

ESPN’s Rob Demovsky spent some time contemplating his fit on the Packers (without mentioning his history as a child-beater which, in my opinion cannot be mentioned enough).

The fact is that Adrian Peterson is the worst possible fit on the Packers. I literally cannot come up with a worse addition to the team. Why?

  1. Adrian Peterson turns 32 shortly, which is ancient for a running back.
  2. He had missed 2 of the last 3 seasons and, like all old running backs, is terribly injury-prone.
  3. He is a disaster in pass protection and has been for years. If you want a back who will get Aaron killed, look no further.
  4. He is an extremely poor receiver, especially as a safety valve. His numbers look as good as they do only because the Vikings occasionally scheme him open in the passing game. There is no good reason for them to do this, but they do it anyway.
  5. He fumbles all the time, and has ended Viking seasons at least twice by doing so.
  6. Even at the veteran minimum he would be expensive for the position.
  7. On top of all of that, at his age and with his injury history, he isn’t even a good runner between the tackles anymore, and struggled mightily in the short time he did play last season.
  8. And on top of everything else, he is a PR nightmare and an unrepentant child beater. I do not believe I could support a team that employed Adrian Peterson.

So no, he is not a good fit on the Packers, and it’s not a fun thing to speculate about. Everyone should stop giving Adrian Peterson any kind of attention, or pretending he’s some NFL legend at this point in his career. He has been a liability for the Vikings for multiple years and is poisonous to anything he touches.

On the Packers, backs should be receivers and blockers first

Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski are not only fine as a base for the position for the Packers — they are exceptional. Montgomery is flawed in pass protection (and may actually be a bit too good between the tackles for my taste), but his receiving talent is the single most important thing that has happened at the position since Ahman Green. I also have seen multiple people question his ability to hold up to running back punishment as if he was some 180-pound scat back, whereas he is in fact much more thickly built than Melvin Gordon. Ripkowski is perfectly capable of providing a quick infusion of power running and good pass blocking. The only thing the Packers need is depth. I’m nominally OK with bringing Lacy back on a cheap, short deal, but even that gives me pause. He could be a bargain in a vacuum, but what he does, when he does it well, is bad for the offense most of the time.

The Packers have so many holes to fill at important positions that focus on running backs, especially starting running backs, is silly. They need bodies to serve as backups, but they are set for starters, and if they decide to take snaps away from Montgomery for a Lacy, or heaven forbid a Peterson-type back, they are actively hurting the team.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Brandon Jackson lost his job due to injury, however he was in fact benched for perceived ineffectiveness.