Mike Vandermause column: Rookie backs Lacy, Franklin poised to provide 1-2 punch

12:19 AM, May 19, 2013  |  Comments
Packers running backs, from left, Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin and Joe Glendening jog during a recent rookie orientation camp practice.
Packers running backs, from left, Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin and Joe Glendening jog during a recent rookie orientation camp practice.
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The Green Bay Packers have featured some famed one-two running back combinations in their history.

Who can forget Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung blowing up defenses in the 1960s? Or John Brockington and MacArthur Lane punishing tacklers in the 1970s with their double-barreled attacking style?

Even during the 1990s, when Mike Holmgren brought the West Coast offense and a high-powered passing game to Green Bay, the Packers had Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens lending support in the backfield and helping them win a Super Bowl title.

But that was 17 years ago, and the days of a two-headed backfield combination in Green Bay have disappeared.

Until now.

At least, that is what the Packers are hoping with the drafting of running backs Eddie Lacy of Alabama in the second round and Johnathan Franklin of UCLA in the fourth round.

One or both could make significant contributions to the Packers' offense this season. While they likely will stage a fierce battle for the starting halfback job, it's entirely possible both will be used extensively this season and complement each other while giving Aaron Rodgers and his receivers some room to breathe.

"We should have a pretty good running game this season," said Lacy during the Packers' recent rookie orientation camp. "The defense won't be able to stack the box up because we have a great quarterback and we have great weapons on the outside. It leaves a lot of room for the running back to work in the middle."

The Packers' offense consistently has been ranked among the best in the NFL under coach Mike McCarthy, largely on the strength of a dynamic passing game. That won't change as long as Rodgers, the best quarterback in the NFL, is behind center.

What the offense has lacked in recent years and especially last season is an effective ground game that can keep defenses honest.

Far too often in 2012, opponents were content to sit back in coverage and force Rodgers to make perfect reads and throws into crowded secondaries. Defenses could get away with that because there was no fear the Packers could run the ball effectively.

Lacy and Franklin could change everything if they turn out to be as good as advertised.

Imagine Rodgers exploiting a defense that moves a safety into the box to guard against the run. Or the Packers shocking the world and actually running the ball with confidence on third-and-2. Or defenders biting on play-action passes.

The possibilities are endless, and you can be sure it has defensive coordinators around the league taking notice.

Rodgers won the NFL MVP award without an effective run game in 2011. Things might get even better if the Packers' running backs are good enough to take some of the defensive pressure off Rodgers.

Lacy and Franklin appear ready and willing for the challenge. Instead of coming off as bitter rivals fighting for the same job, they acted and sounded like bosom buddies who will go to battle together.

"Competition is going to bring out the best in you," said Franklin. "We're definitely going to find out what kind of men we are and what kind of athletes we are, so I'm excited to compete with Eddie and learn from Eddie and get better with him as well."

It couldn't have been an accident that Lacy and Franklin were roommates at the team hotel during last week's rookie camp.

It was a perfect opportunity for them to get to know each other and build chemistry. If the Packers have their way, Lacy and Franklin will be competing alongside, not against, each other to form some kind of yet to be determined one-two backfield punch.

"Well, two different types of backs," said McCarthy in describing Lacy and Franklin.

"They're young players. They're drafted players. We look for them to definitely help us and contribute."

Lacy was projected as a first-round draft choice, so when the Packers took him late in the second round, he was naturally disappointed. But that feeling didn't last long.

"I was very frustrated at first," admits Lacy. "But when I found that I was coming here, it kind of balanced it out a little bit. I didn't go when I wanted to, but I feel as though I couldn't have landed in a better spot than I am right now."

The Packers are starved for a running back or two that can produce. What better place for a pair of rookies to make their mark?

"Me and Eddie were talking about it," said Franklin.

"This is so unreal it hasn't even hit us yet. It's amazing to be here. This is my dream, just to be living it and be a part of it. It blows me away."

Lacy and Franklin settled their differences early in the rookie camp last weekend.

"We go back and forth about the SEC and Pac-12," said Franklin. "I've been telling him the SEC is overrated."

Lacy, the product of an Alabama team that won the national championship in January, had other ideas.

"He thinks they could have beat us, but I don't think so," said Lacy. "I wasn't hearing none of that."

Both rookies are laid-back. During their first weekend as roommates they joked around a lot and watched the NBA playoffs on TV.

"We're friends but we're here trying to get the same job," said Lacy. "But we have to compete. There's no hard feelings. We're both going to get a chance to play. We'll both get our opportunities."

Franklin is somewhat of a Packers history buff and said he followed the team growing up.

"I'm not going to lie, I used to love Antonio Freeman," he said.

"I was a big Ahman Green fan, and Dorsey Levens. Back in the day, I used to watch them a lot."

Levens and Bennett combined for 1,465 rushing yards, 62 receptions and 13 touchdowns in 1996, the year the Packers won the Super Bowl.

No pair of Packers running backs since has shared the load so well and enjoyed such a balanced and productive season.

Until Lacy and Franklin came along, no two Packers backs possessed the talent and potential to pull it off.

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