Matt LaFleur says some version of it every time he steps to the microphone. “The offense is built on the run game.” Take him seriously, but not literally. The Green Bay Packers’ offense will not suddenly become a ground-and-pound attack, undercutting Aaron Rodgers’ virtuoso ability to make plays in the passing game. But Brian Gutekunst’s weekend moves underscore the commitment the team has under LaFleur to building an offense heavily featuring its backs. There’s a recent analogue in LaFleur’s coaching tree to help us understand what that might look like.
Matt Ryan lit the league up in 2016 with Falcons teammates Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and an unconscious season from Kyle Shanahan’s playcalls as well as play design. Packers fans may not recognize it because it hardly resembled 2011, when Rodgers torched teams mostly out of shotgun and spread formations with the run game little more than an afterthought.
While Ryan nabbed MVP that season, the Falcons were 22nd in pass rate (the Packers were 2nd). The incredible production came from efficiency. Only the Saints had a better success rate when throwing ball in ‘16 and Ryan easily led the league in yards per attempt. Ryan completed nearly 70% of his passes for just shy of 5,000 yards, putting him in elite company all time with a historic season.
Shanahan expertly struck the balance between run and pass, while diagramming open looks and scheming people open. He’s the gold standard when it comes to play design out of big personnel, finding ways to get tight ends and fullbacks running free down the field. It’s no coincidence the 49ers have likewise loaded up at running back, or that efficient offenses with top quarterbacks like the Saints and Patriots have done the same.
Play action and throwing from big personnel represent more efficient options than the potentially more intuitive alternatives: passing out of multiple receiver sets.
In that ‘16 season, the Falcons ran 995 plays, with 469 of them going to running back touches. So while Atlanta threw the ball 58% of the time compared to 42% rushing — importantly, still much more pass-heavy than run-heavy — nearly 47% of the team’s plays involved the running backs.
Devonta Freeman carried the running load, while Tevin Coleman provided a big play threat as a change-of-pace back. They affected the game on the ground and through the air, with Coleman averaging more yards per catch than Mohamed Sanu that season. The Packers have a similar setup, with Aaron Jones set to handle No. 1 back duties and Jamaal Williams coming in to spell him. If rookie Dexter Williams can keep his hot start to training camp going, he may be in line for some of that work as well, with new Green Bay back Corey Grant figuring in as a pass-catching home run threat.
A roster with four capable backs on it would have been lost on the Packers in previous regimes. In fact, similar running back rooms have indeed been wasted.
Mike McCarthy never struck the balance. He’d too quickly abandon the run game when it wasn’t working, and the play-action game along with it. When things got tough, he’d let Rodgers be Rodgers. Not a bad way to go down swinging.
But Jones should have been getting the ball more. Ty Montgomery could have been split out and used in the passing game with more frequency to create mismatches. McCarthy rotated backs by series rather than my formation or personnel grouping, resulting in an offense that failed to maximize the skillsets of its players. Mismanaging the running backs was emblematic of McCarthy’s failings more broadly as a coach.
Modern NFL balance doesn’t look like 50/50 with the ground and air attacks. When the team has playmakers like Aaron Jones, he should be getting the ball in more ways than simple handoffs. LaFleur already has Jones and these running backs split out and lined up all over the formation. We’ve even seen the John Kuhn single-back fullback offense triumphantly return with Danny Vitale, a former prolific pass-catcher at Northwestern.
Some excused McCarthy’s lack of commitment to Jones due to his size. Rotating backs, with what should be a deep running back room, should keep Jones fresh, while also allowing LaFleur to maintain maximum flexibility with personnel deployment. When the team has so many capable players, it’s nearly impossible to be predictable by formation even with the fullback as the only one on the field.
No one is better than the Patriots are exploiting that type of malleability and it’s no coincidence their offense finds success each week despite changing game plans. In fact, they’re able to alter their approach so frequently specifically because they have such flexibility with their players.
When Matt LaFleur says the offense starts with the run, he means philosophically as well as play design, but also with personnel. Predicating the offense on the run centers just as importantly around throwing as it does rushing, specifically because of the kind of obfuscation on intention that kind of run-pass option out of any formation provides an offense. The more things a team can do out of base personnel, the more versatile the offense can be and as a result, the more unpredictable it can be as well.
This will hardly be a return to the old “run first, ask questions later” method of bygone eras. LaFleur will be looking to exploit mismatches in ways we simply haven’t seen in Green Bay. That approach has already borne fruit in the way that Gutekunst constructs this roster, starting with a running back-heavy approach. Expect this attack to be more balanced in the way the ball is distributed overall, seeking to find ways to get everyone involved, but not to suddenly become some regressive version of football that doesn’t allow Rodgers to be Rodgers.