Run game back in flux after curfew gaffe

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy looks on during Nov. 22's game against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

This wasn't how Eddie Lacy's season was supposed to play out.

Coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons, everyone expected the Green Bay Packers' 25-year-old running back to take his place as one of the NFL's premier running backs in 2015. His likeness was sprawled across season-preview magazines. Experts considered him a lock for another productive year.

By season’s end, the conversation should have been about how another big season may translate into a long-term contract extension. Instead, Lacy’s third NFL campaign has been a carousel of questions regarding playing time, conditioning and now a missed curfew.

Lacy is on pace for barely more than 700 yards with four weeks left in the regular season. He’s seen a massive reduction in snaps (27.7 per game) and mostly played second fiddle to veteran James Starks, whose productivity in the pass game has been a bright spot for the struggling offense.

Despite lingering questions about his size – one NFL source told Press-Gazette Media recently that Lacy is about 20 pounds heavier than his listed weight of 234 – he appeared to be coming on the past two weeks with a 100-yard performance against Minnesota and another 105 yards against Chicago on Thanksgiving.

Then, the Packers inexplicably benched Lacy at the start of Thursday’s critical game against Detroit. He touched the ball six times for one total yard on 19 snaps. A day later, NFL sources confirmed Lacy and fellow running back Alonzo Harris missed curfew Wednesday night.

Harris, an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette, was making a little more than $25,000 per week before the Packers released him Thursday morning for the incident. John Crockett was promoted from the practice squad three hours before the game and wound up the team’s running back coming out of halftime against Detroit.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t go into details about Lacy’s demotion and Harris’ release when asked about it Friday before reports surfaced about the missed curfew. He did go out of his way to praise Crockett, who was seen as one of the team’s most coveted undrafted rookies in May.

“He’s got unbelievable energy. He puts a lot of time in,” McCarthy said. “He’s got his nose in his playbook, the way it should be. So there’s just a lot there that’s been going on for really since training camp. That decision could’ve went either way, in my opinion, between Alonzo and Crockett. It was time to give the young man an opportunity.”

The Packers don’t travel all of their practice-squad players each week. Unless it’s a special circumstance, only one or two players dubbed the scout-team players of the week make the trip. The Packers were fortunate Crockett earned the honors with fullback Aaron Ripkowski a late scratch with an illness.

Crockett (6-foot, 217) sparked the offense with three carries for 16 yards after halftime. His skill set probably complements Starks and Lacy better than that of Harris, who also was a north-south power back. After currying the favor of his coaches, Crockett could factor into the team’s game plan going forward.

“I’m emotional, I’m going to be energetic all the time,” said Crockett, who finished with five carries for 22 yards on seven snaps. “Just having that energy about myself, hopefully it’ll help get guys going a little bit.”

Meanwhile, Lacy is again left in limbo. After Thursday’s 27-23 win over Detroit, Lacy said he didn’t know how much playing time he’d see the rest of the season. While his discipline wasn’t nearly as harsh as the now-unemployed Harris, the Packers’ frustration with the Pro Bowl running back is mounting.

On Friday, they brought in former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball for a workout. Ball, drafted three spots ahead of Lacy in 2013, hasn’t been on an NFL roster since the Denver Broncos released him during final cuts three months ago. He remains a candidate for the practice squad under the veteran exemption.

With Harris no longer in the team’s plans, indications are the Packers won’t address filling the practice-squad spot Crockett vacated until after the weekend.

Lacy’s regression has created an unexpected problem for the Packers, who already have an abundance of needs going into next year’s draft and likely weren’t counting on running back being high on the list. Their most reliable back, Starks, turns 30 in February and is an unrestricted free agent.

They have a month to determine whether Crockett can be counted on as a change-of-pace back in addition to figuring out what to do with Lacy. Even if the former NFL offensive rookie of the year doesn’t get going, he’ll have the 2016 season to prove himself before he hits unrestricted free agency.

Still, you can be certain general manager Ted Thompson, his front office and coaching staff have taken notice of what’s happened this year. Even if his play and accountability improves, Lacy will need to prove he’s dependable enough to command the contract his play warranted early on.

The 3,001 total yards and 24 touchdowns Lacy produced in his first two seasons added a dimension to the Packers’ offense that it lacked during most of McCarthy’s tenure as head coach. When asked Friday what Lacy must do to bounce back, McCarthy pointed to his preparation.

“I discussed this in our team meeting. There’s a lot more to give,” McCarthy said. “The fine details are not where we want them to be. There’s a formula for us to get it there. That was made clear to our players and with the expectations and the commitment that we’ve made to each other, and we’ve got to do a better job.”

It’s not like the Packers’ ground game has been a complete disappointment. Green Bay still ranks 15th in the NFL in yards per game (111.7) and ninth in yards per attempt (4.3) due to Lacy’s sporadic contributions, Starks’ career year and Aaron Rodgers’ mobility.

It just hasn’t been consistent enough to take pressure off the passing offense. Without Jordy Nelson (torn ACL), the Packers needed what Lacy gave them in the second half of his rookie year when Rodgers (broken collarbone) and receiver Randall Cobb (broken leg) were sidelined.

Nagging ankle and groin injuries haven’t helped Lacy’s production this year. He has 127 carries for 517 yards with a career-low two touchdowns and a career-high four fumbles. While injuries can’t be controlled, accountability is entirely up to the individual.

Time isn't on Lacy's side given the nature of his position. The NFL doesn't wait on anyone. If he’s not careful, it won’t wait on Eddie Lacy, either. and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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