Ask him about the Green Bay Packers, and Ben Sirmans’ excitement bubbles to the surface. He smiles wide. His eyes get big. Multiple times, the words “jacked up” slip from his mouth.
He’s happy to be here. Just as he was four months ago. When the St. Louis Rams came rumbling into Lambeau Field last October, Sirmans was their running backs coach. He remembers riding the bus into the stadium parking lot, looking out the window, seeing the “passion” in every direction.
“It’s like driving to play a big college game,” Sirmans said, “because you see all the people lined up. You see people in their homes. You see the flags all over the place. If I’m driving in as a player or as a coach, that’s getting me jacked up.
“I’ve been coaching now in the NFL for four years, and this was the only stadium that I actually took my phone out and took pictures of. All the other places, I didn’t do that.”
McCarthy: Offense took a step back last year
After being caught in the Rams’ staff-wide firings last month, there were plenty of reasons Sirmans was interested in the vacancy to replace Sam Gash as the Packers' running backs coach. Tradition. The chance to win titles. Going to the playoffs every year. He mentioned all of it Thursday. There was something else, too. Something unique to his new role.
He wanted to coach Eddie Lacy.
Among the four assistant coaches Mike McCarthy introduced Thursday, none has a bigger job ahead than Sirmans. It’s no secret Lacy had a disappointing 2015 season. Word spread all the way to St. Louis. After starting his career with consecutive 1,100-yard seasons, Lacy had an unflattering 758 yards and only three rushing touchdowns in 2015.
It was a speed bump in a once-burgeoning career. This offseason, Lacy hopes to prevent it from becoming a permanent detour. He’s the biggest road block — maybe the only one — in the way. McCarthy said his running back reported to training camp out of shape and overweight. He never recovered.
So one of the most important aspects of Sirmans’ job is clear. He must whip a fallen star back into shape. Much of Sirmans’ job evaluation hinges on it.
“Like everything,” McCarthy said, “you have different components of your football operations. Your strength, conditioning, training, nutrition — all those things. Everybody’s accountable to their area, and the position coach is ultimately accountable for the performance and the training of their players.
“But Eddie Lacy, conditioning and so forth, is something I have great confidence will improve, or is improving as we speak. He’ll learn from his performance last season.”
Sirmans will be tasked with teaching him.
He already has spoken to Lacy, wasting no time to start building a relationship. The initial conversation was designed for Lacy to get to know his new coach. Later, Sirmans said, they’ll talk more about football.
Beyond conversations, the early stages of Sirmans’ plan will happen in the film room. Sirmans said he’ll study Lacy’s first two seasons, then compare it to 2015. He wants to know specifically how Lacy’s extra weight affected him on the field. He already understands the benefits of Lacy meeting the desired weight.
“In that situation,” Sirmans said, “obviously he’d be a little bit quicker and in this league, quickness and those things, they do matter. I haven’t really had a chance to really focus and see the difference between Eddie when he was lighter and to where he’s at right now, and to study those things. Those are some of the things that I want to do, so that when he comes back and we sit down and start talking and develop a plan to help him to continue to get better, I have a great idea of what he needs to do from that standpoint.
“My role, from that standpoint, it’s very important because everything leads to performance. So the better shape he’s in, obviously the better he’s going to perform. So my role is to make sure not only that I encourage him, to make sure that he’s doing the right thing. Making sure he also realizes the benefits of him being at his top (conditioning), which he does. He does understand that.”
Lacy had only 27 yards on 13 carries when the Rams traveled to Lambeau Field in October, part of a midseason slump that eventually caused him to lose his starting job to James Starks. On paper, it wasn’t the best impression to leave his new coach. But Sirmans needs no convincing when it comes to Lacy’s potential.
He remembers when Lacy entered the draft out of Alabama three years ago. After studying Lacy’s college film, Sirmans said, he quickly became his top-rated running back in the 2013 class. For two years, Lacy did everything Sirmans expected. He has seen the good side of Lacy in person, too.
In two preseason games at the Rams before the 2013 and 2014 season, Lacy combined to rush for 65 yards on 13 carries (5 yards per carry). He also caught three passes for 33 yards. Sirmans hasn’t forgotten. For all the questions about weight and conditioning, he gushed over Lacy’s talent.
“I saw what he was doing to our defense,” Sirmans said. “So I knew that he’s a guy that’s very, very capable and talented. … I know that he’s a very explosive player. Got a ton of talent. Strong. Got great feet. Just to have a chance to be able to coach a guy with those type of attributes, I’m really excited about.”
The key will be offseason maintenance. Lacy can’t show up to another training camp and expect talent alone to carry him. He learned that last year.
Sirmans seems to be an ideal fit to help get Lacy back on track. While the Rams' offense dropped to the bottom of the league in 2015, it was hardly the running game’s fault. The Rams finished seventh in the NFL with 122.3 rushing yards per game last season. Sirmans helped guide rookie Todd Gurley to a Pro Bowl season and offensive rookie of the year distinction with 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games.
Those are the numbers Lacy hopes to return to next season. It’s Sirmans’ experience with another Rams running back that could be especially beneficial. His first season with the Rams coincided with Steven Jackson’s final. Jackson, a 12-year vet, had a long tenure of success in St. Louis that included three Pro Bowls.
It’s rare to see a running back last more than a decade in the NFL. The position is unkind to longevity. Jackson was different. Even now, Sirmans gushes about how Jackson was a true professional. In position meetings, Sirmans said, Jackson’s notebooks were always full. He lived in the film room. He took care of his body off the field.
Three years ago, the Packers pursued Jackson in free agency. He instead signed with Atlanta, and the Packers drafted Lacy. Now, Sirmans will teach the young tailback all the secrets to Jackson’s long and successful career. Sirmans said he doesn’t doubt Lacy can go against the NFL’s mold too, establishing a long and successful career for himself.
“The things that he can do,” Sirmans said, “for a guy that’s a big guy with incredible feet, I think he’s a guy who definitely has some staying power in this league for sure.”