Maybe Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has made a fundamental change in his offensive philosophy when it comes to running the football.
Or maybe we’ve just misinterpreted his words and actions over the past two seasons.
I could have sworn that since Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 of the 2010 season, McCarthy has preferred to use a running back-by-committee approach.
But McCarthy attempted to set the record straight Friday.
“Well, that’s not accurate,” he said. “I’ve never said I preferred the running back by committee. That’s the world that we’re in. To me, running back by committee (or) one guy carries it all the time, the players determine that. I’ve never stood up here, and if I did, correct me, and said that I prefer to do it that way.”
With all due respect to McCarthy, he actually did stand up a year ago and say that spreading the ball around was the way he wanted to go in his backfield.
On Aug. 6, 2011, following the Packers’ Family Night scrimmage, McCarthy was asked if he hoped to use a tandem backfield during the season, and he replied: “I hope so. It’s a long season, 16 games, carrying the ball 20 to 25 times a game, that’s a lot for one individual to go through. I hope to be spreading the ball around.”
The Packers did exactly that, with Grant rushing 134 times last year and James Starks 133. It was only natural to assume McCarthy, both in word and deed, had jumped on the trend adopted by many NFL teams to share the running back load.
While McCarthy’s most recent comments seem to directly contradict what he said and did in 2011, there could be a reasonable explanation. What McCarthy seems to be suggesting now is that the committee approach was used out of necessity over the past two years, and that deep down, he prefers having a bell-cow back.
When Grant went down two years ago, Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Starks received significant carries at various points during the Packers’ Super Bowl championship season. McCarthy will spread it around when the personnel dictates that approach.
“I think there’s benefits to it, but if there’s an individual on your football team that clearly makes a statement that he can carry the whole load, then he will,” McCarthy said.
That was what happened during McCarthy’s first four seasons as coach. Ahman Green received 67 percent of the carries among running backs in 2006, and Grant was the workhorse the following three years. Grant averaged 19.5 carries per game in 2008, or 83 percent of the rushing load, and in 2009 averaged 17.6 carries (75 percent).
Grant’s first-half injury in Philadelphia on Sept. 12, 2010, on just his eighth carry, forced McCarthy to adjust, but as we learned Friday, it didn’t change his core belief about favoring one ball carrier.
McCarthy apparently didn’t feel comfortable last year with either an aging Grant or an injury-prone Starks serving as the go-to back, so he split their workload down the middle.
This year things could be dramatically different with the signing a week ago of veteran Cedric Benson. If the 29-year-old veteran, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons in Cincinnati, proves there’s life remaining in his legs, he could be McCarthy’s primary rusher.
It was initially believed Benson, with his one-year veterans minimum contract, was signed as a stopgap measure. But McCarthy’s latest comments sounded like an open invitation for Benson to seize the starting halfback job and run with it.
It also explains why Benson was signed instead of Grant, who the Packers determined was no longer capable of serving as an every-down back.
Even Packers general manager Ted Thompson, normally cautious when speaking about personnel, seemed to suggest this past week that the Benson signing was not a short-term fix.
“I’m talking about we needed another guy to add to the group for the season,” Thompson said. “I’m not talking about a training camp guy.”
If Benson pans out, the Packers will have pulled off one of the steals of the year.
Benson wasn’t shy about sharing his hopes for the season.
“I definitely have a goal to still rush for 1,000 (yards) and things like that, 1,000-plus, and set up some big numbers,” Benson said when he arrived in Green Bay. “I understand it’s not a run-first team and the run is not real heavy here, but there’s times where a back gets the ball 25 times. And I’m sure if things are rolling, the run game is set to a standard that we’re hoping to achieve, it could be way more carries than that.”
Those apparently were exactly the words McCarthy wanted to hear and the production he is looking for in a running back.
mvandermause@greenbaypress gazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.