Lacy becoming more complete back
He sidestepped one tackler at the 17-yard line. A few strides later, Eddie Lacy used a double spin move to shed a defensive lineman off his back.
But he wasn't done.
Between Lacy and the end zone, three Philadelphia Eagles defenders were waiting to tackle him. So Lacy ran them over.
"He's a bowling ball when he's out there in space," Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show this week.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy called Lacy's 32-yard touchdown off a fourth-quarter screen pass a "great" finish to a play. The difference between "playing OK" and playing exceptional, he said.
On Thursday, running backs coach Sam Gash simply shook his head.
"Can't explain it," he said. "That's something that you don't 'try' to do. You just go out and basically tell them to stay up. I always say, 'Bad athletes fall.' So he does a great job of staying on his feet, keeping his eyes up and going up the field."
Great athletes also show a certain versatility, too. In his second season, Lacy has shown he's the complete package, a three-tool running back.
With Rodgers passing at historic clips — making ridiculously efficient production his norm — Lacy is 13th in the NFL with 129 carries through 10 games. It's a stark contrast from last season, when his 284 carries as a rookie ranked fifth in the league. Lacy's production on the ground has reflected his opportunities. A season after rushing for 1,173 yards and earning the NFL offensive rookie of the year award, he's on pace for 875.
Fewer opportunities could be the norm in future seasons, too. So long as Rodgers stays healthy, it may be unrealistic for Lacy to annually rank among the league's top five in carries. With one of the top quarterbacks in football, the Packers' offense likely always will revolve around the passing game.
Regardless, Lacy has found a way to thrive in Green Bay's pass-happy offense. Despite fewer rushing yards, he's on pace for 1,390 total yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2013, he had 1,435 total yards and 11 touchdowns.
"I think it speaks volumes of him now, and how the NFL views running backs," Gash said. "He's a big guy that can do quite a few things catching."
Catching has been the key. Lacy's vast improvement as a receiver out of the backfield has helped maintain his production.
This fall, he's simply contributing in a different way.
With six games left, Lacy's 322 receiving yards are 65 more than he had a season ago — and he's done it with eight fewer catches. In his past three games, Lacy has 14 catches for 236 yards and the first two receiving touchdowns of his career.
Lacy said he isn't picky. Whether it's through the air or on the ground, he wants the football in his hands.
"Anytime I get the ball, I'm just happy to have it and make the most of it," Lacy said. "When we get the ball out — whether it's a screen pass or dump-off pass — and it's you and a corner or you and a safety, I like those odds a lot better than running up the middle at linebackers. But, no matter how I get it, somebody's going to have to hit me."
A more well-rounded game was the plan for Lacy entering his second season.
All summer, he and Gash focused on pass-catching drills. Each practice, Lacy and his coach would work over on the sideline, with Gash tossing rapid-fire darts.
Gash said he's never implemented a set number of catches Lacy must handle before the drill ends. It's about repetition, muscle memory. The drill could last eight minutes. It could last 10.
"I just throw balls. The more you catch, the easier it gets," Gash said. "That is just the way I believe. There are a number of drills that you can do that we did, but just my whole thought was getting him to catch balls. Just get used to it and comfortable with it, reaction times."
As long as they're over on the sideline, Gash never stops chucking. A southpaw, he rifles passes to his running back one after another.
For a fullback who spent 12 seasons and 177 games opening running lanes with crushing blocks, Gash's arm is impressive.
"It rebuilds every day," Gash said, smiling. "That's what I tell him. I feel like I'm Steve Austin. Like back in the day, the old Bionic Man. I've been cut up enough."
His fastball has a purpose.
In this offense, Gash said, running backs must be ready for Rodgers' high heat. Lacy has started seeing the benefit of his extra time spent catching passes. His improvement has opened new possibilities.
Rodgers grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan. He remembers watching former tailback Roger Craig, the first running back in NFL history to finish with 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Rodgers said he "teased" Lacy a couple week ago about the possibility, daunting as it might be.
Lacy said he hasn't set the 1,000/1,000 mark as a goal. Still, being an effective receiver is important to him. He plans to shed weight, perhaps making him even more fit for the passing game.
"I think what he's getting at is, if I'm going to be involved in the passing game this year, and if I want to be a better player, then it might not be a bad idea to just get a little more agile, I guess you could say," Lacy said.
Gash doesn't read into his players' stats. Their numbers are their goals, he said. His job is to help get them there.
Still, he doesn't scoff when asked whether Lacy could potentially develop into a 1,000/1,000 tailback in the Packers' offense. Opportunities are the key, he said. With Rodgers behind center, and Lacy earning his quarterback's trust, the big tailback should get plenty.
"I think anything's realistic," Gash said. "He's a well-rounded running back. I'm not going to get into yards, or what he should do and stuff, what he can do. Obviously, I hope he has his projections, his goals that he wants to meet. My ultimate goal is to help win games.
"I think he's that guy. I definitely think he can be that guy."