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Pete Dougherty column: Can the Green Bay Packers make it to the Super Bowl without a running game?

Oct. 1, 2010
 
Kareem and Pete talk about the Detroit Lions game
Kareem and Pete talk about the Detroit Lions game: Kareem and Pete talk about the Detroit Lions game
Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley runs after a catch in the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill., on Monday, Sept. 27, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette

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This looks like early 2007 all over again.

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You might remember. From the start of the preseason, the Packers couldn’t run the ball, and by the second quarter of Week 2 at Giants Stadium, coach Mike McCarthy had seen enough. He threw out all pretense of balance, spread the field and had Brett Favre throw, and throw, and throw.

And this year? Since losing halfback Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in the first half of the first game, the Packers have had no juice running the ball. On Monday night at Chicago’s Soldier Field, McCarthy had seen enough, spread the field and had Aaron Rodgers throw, and throw, and throw.

No doubt, the opponent played a role. The Bears have the NFL’s top-rated run defense, and sitting back in their Cover 2 scheme, they invited attack by a ball-control passing game.

But McCarthy’s play calling also acknowledged the obvious: Without Grant, the Packers can’t worry about balance.

“The guys who are playing the best are wearing jersey numbers in the 80s,” Rodgers said this week. “That’s kind of the reason we’re getting those guys on the field as much as we can.”

Which leads to the question: How heavily can a team tilt toward the pass and still win a championship? Can it spread the field, throw 70 percent of the time, and get to the championship game?

If not, is there anyone on the Packers’ roster who can be 2007’s Grant? Remember, at this time in ’07, even Grant wasn’t Grant. He was just the unknown No. 4 halfback, acquired for a sixth-round draft pick at the end of training camp, on a team that didn’t have a No. 1 runner.

As to the former question, conventional wisdom and history say you might win some games passing to the extreme, but you need the threat of a viable run game to win a title. Even New Orleans last year, with its unmatched talent in the passing game, had a pass-to-run ratio of 62.5-to-37.5. In contrast, the Packers through the first six games of ’07 were 69.3-to-30.7.

But it’s at least worth considering whether passing games have evolved enough to cast aside conventional wisdom.

“I don’t think you can just apply that (question) across the NFL,” McCarthy said this week. “I think there’s other factors involved. Probably what part of the country you play in. How your team’s built, as far as your philosophy, offense, defense and special teams. But can it be done? I’m sure it could be.”

That, in effect, is a hedge, though it suggests at the very least it would be harder to do in Green Bay than, say, San Diego.

The guess here? The Packers’ abundant talent in the passing game can score plenty of points and win a lot of games. But if they don’t find a back who can threaten top defenses or produce in horrendous weather, it could cost them their chance of a championship.

“I think you’ve got to run it, I think you’ll have to,” Rodgers said. “One thing that might be lost in this whole 2010, a whole lot of people underestimate the importance of Ryan, maybe not in September and October, but when you get in those cold months and you’ve got a guy like that who runs downhill and hard. That’s tough to replace right there.

“At some point, the weather’s going to be bad. We lucked out last year, you have no idea what the weather’s going to be like, but if it gets negative-15, negative-20, you’re going to have to run the ball effectively. So we’re going to have to figure out what combination of guys in the backfield can get that done. Because you’ve got to be realistic, it’s going to be tough to be effective if it’s snowing or negative-20 and trying to throw the ball 50 times.”

Looking back to ’07, the Packers’ spread game was a success, as far as it went. They were 5-1 before Grant got his shot by default in Week 7, and the run-to-pass ratio went from 70-to-30 in the first six games to 55.6-to-44.4 in the final 10.

Packers statistics  |   Other NFL statistics  |  Standings  |  Matchups/Odds

This year, the sample of games is small (three), but for what it’s worth, the ratio is 60-to-40 (108 passes and scrambles, 72 rushes), including against Chicago, when they had 47 pass plays and only 13 runs (78.3-to 21.7).

So the parallels to ’07 are real. But there’s one major difference: Jermichael Finley.

In ’07, Favre had one receiver defenses had to try to keep from beating them in Greg Jennings (12 touchdowns in ’07), plus the ever-effective Donald Driver (83 receptions). The next-leading receivers were tight end Donald Lee (48 catches), James Jones (47) and Koren Robinson (21).

The Packers at least are comparable at quarterback with Rodgers, and he has Jennings and Finley, who has defenses game-planning to stop him. Combined with a deep corps of receivers (Driver, Jones and Jordy Nelson), this team is better equipped than ’07 to win with only a token run game.

But even so, it’s telling to look back at the Packers’ loss in the NFC championship game in ’07. In the minus-23 wind chill at Lambeau Field, the Packers’ running game was a liability even with Grant. He gained only 29 yards on 13 carries against a Giants defense that was one of the NFL’s best by the end of the year. Favre threw 35 passes (no scrambles), a 71.4-to-28.6 pass-to-run ratio on a brutal day for throwing the ball.

The Giants, on the other hand, had 42 passes and scrambles and 37 runs. Halfbacks Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 130 yards.

That game went into overtime, so you can point to any number of reasons they lost, but having no running game on that frigid day ranks right up there.

This year, Finley adds a weapon they lacked in ’07. But without Grant, the Packers also have had almost no run game.

Maybe they’ll find one. The best chance is via a trade. General Manager Ted Thompson’s history argues against him paying a premium for, say, the Bills’ Marshawn Lynch, but you can’t rule it out until the Oct. 19 trade deadline has passed.

Remember, too, that at this time in ’07, the Packers didn’t know Grant was Grant. But is there a comparable runner on their roster now?

Rodgers said he’d like Brandon Jackson to get a couple 20-carry games, but I don’t see it. Recently signed Dimitri Nance? Another hard sell, though you never know.

There’s also unknown rookie James Starks. The sixth-round draft pick, who hasn’t practiced since failing his physical at the start of training camp because of a hamstring injury, is eligible to play after Week 6. He’s built like Grant and probably is more athletic, though there’s no way to know whether he has anything close to Grant’s power and toughness. In other words, he’s a long shot, too.

E-mail Pete Dougherty at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com.

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