I’ve written far too much about the usefulness of running backs, but I’ve also seen far too much written about the Green Bay Packers’ “gaping hole” at the position, and I think some additional perspective would be useful. The Packers front office likes to talk up the importance of the running game and people love running backs for all sorts of reasons from fantasy to pure entertainment value, but even if you aren’t an anti-running zealot like I am, calling the Packer running back position a “gaping hole on the roster” or a major concern is simply wrong. The math is clear on this.
A lot of this comes down to how many carries you think Ty Montgomery can give you. I understand why people are skeptical about his ability to carry a “full workload,” but the Packers don’t need a back to carry a full workload. Teams like the Vikings, with a substandard quarterback and good defense, often feel they need to run the ball a ton to limit the number of possessions in a game and, to slow the game down for the benefit of the defense. Indeed, the Vikings gave the ball to running backs 342 times last season, despite not frequently holding leads. A lot of running occurs when trying to kill the clock, and 342 carries is a lot for an 8-8 team. The Packers, despite frequently needing to run to preserve leads, ran the ball only 292 times with running backs (excluding QB scrambles and WR runs). 292 runs over the course of a season, or just 18 carries per game, isn’t that much. In fact, Adrian Peterson has had more than 292 carries in a season 4 times over the course of his career. The fact that the Packers run the ball so infrequently is one of the reasons that no one should panic about this.
What do those carries look like?
Last season, Montgomery and Ripkowski combined for 111 of the 292 RB carries (38%). Lacy added 71 (24%), the withered husk of James Starks added 63 (21%), Christine Michael contributed 31 carries (11%), and the Davis/Jackson/Kerridge trio kicked in 16 (5.4%).
While it may look like the Packers have to replace 62% of their carries, that’s not really the case. Montgomery may not see 200 carries, but 150 isn’t too much to ask, and if they had to push him to 175, that would be fine. If Montgomery sees 150 and Ripkowski gets his 34 again, that would account for 63% of total carries necessary to replace last year’s production. If Monty were to get 175 carries, with Ripkowski that would account for 71% of the total.
That still leaves something like 30% of carries available, but the fact is that a lot of those carries are extremely low leverage (meaning any back, even a replacement-level back could take care of them with little loss in value), and could be easily handled by a slight increase in Ripkowski’s workload, or handled by a late-round draft pick, or a cheap veteran free agent who does a few things well.
What do I mean by “low leverage?” If you break down Christine Michael’s carries, you will see that out of his 31 regular season carries, between 15-18 were simply clock killers. I counted 3rd quarter carries with a large lead as clock-killers, but even excluding those, about half of Michael’s carries were valuable simply because they happened, and 10 of those carries gained 2 yards or fewer. Splitting off the low leverage carries brings our total to 76% of total carries accounted for.
It’s not Lacy, it’s Starks.
A big chunk of what needs replacing of the remaining carry deficit belonged to James Starks, who averaged 2.3 yards per rush. To spell this out a little more clearly, Montgomery is perfectly capable of providing his carries, plus the little bit that Lacy had early in the season, plus a few more without taxing him too much. Ripkowski is capable of being Ripkowski again, and was in fact pretty effective as a runner last year. At least 5% of carries barely matter in terms of success, especially given the Packer offense’s ability to generate leads, and that 5% also only accounts for Michael. Montgomery and Ripkowski also did some late game work and those low-leverage carries could also be moved to a less talented backup if the starters require more rest. The rest of last year’s carries were contributed by sub-replacement players in Starks, Davis, and Jackson. Improving on their performances without paying big, or even medium money to a free agent is a simple thing.
The Packer front office is not charged with replacing Eddie Lacy, and no analysis of the position should claim otherwise. The front office is currently charged with replacing Starks, and replacing the 2016 version of James Starks is just about the easiest thing in the world.
Improved performance with better scheme fit
Eddie Lacy was a good player in a vacuum and I was impressed with how he managed to rebound last season, but I still think he’s an extremely poor scheme fit for a pass-first team featuring an all-time great quarterback. I wish him well in Seattle where he can try to become Marshawn Lynch 2.0. More Montgomery is a huge benefit to the Packer offense in general, and expanding his touches along with the additions of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks should make the 2017 offense almost impossible to defend. Much was made over the offensive improvement with Jared Cook on the field (even when he did not actually produce much), but you can say a lot of the same things about Montgomery. While splits are tricky with backs because they get more carries when the team is winning, when Ty Montgomery got 5+ carries the Packers averaged 31.3 points per game. If he had 4 or less they averaged 23.4. There is a lot unaccounted for in this statistic including strength of opponent defense, small samples, and isolating Montgomery’s actual contributions, but 8 points is a pretty significant split, and the split is more about Lacy v. Montgomery. What it appears to tell us is that the offense was much better with Montgomery than with Lacy.
The fact is that the Packer offense will probably be much better in 2017 as currently constituted, and the gaping hole that everyone talks about needing to replace is actually just a broken down veteran (though still a Super Bowl hero). The Packers have a ton of actual holes on the roster that need fixing, especially on defense. The running back hole can easily be filled with a low draft pick, or even an undrafted free agent.