McCarthy breaks traditional play-calling model

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY – He’s 6-foot-4, more than 300 pounds with brown hair dropping past his shoulders. No, David Bakhtiari doesn’t look like a defensive back.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talks with Mike McCarthy in the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

He was built for offensive line.

But it’s a different season with the Green Bay Packers. Each week has become a similar routine. Off the snap, Bakhtiari is usually stepping backward. He is patient, reacting, shadowing his man.

The Packers' left tackle repeats the process over and over, backpedaling again and again, more than ever before.

It’s life in reverse for an NFL offensive lineman. Those burly 300-pounders crave violence on a football field. They want to step forward, be the aggressors.

Backpedaling more than 70 percent of the snaps is never ideal.

“I feel like a DB backpedaling,” Bakhtiari said. “Going backward more than I’m going forward.”

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Bakhtiari is playing in a video-game offense, born out of necessity. The Packers have almost no semblance of a reliable running game, injuries depleting a depth chart that started the season already thin.

For most of the past month and a half, they’ve hardly tried.

In his first 10 seasons, coach Mike McCarthy was a model of consistency as a play caller. Some might find him to be too stubborn. From 2006 to 2015, the Packers finished almost every year with pass plays – pass attempts, sacks or quarterback scrambles – called between 62 and 66 percent.

Their lone exception was 2013, when Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone forced the Packers to run the football more, leading to a final pass-run distribution of 60-40. McCarthy adjusted to a sudden, traumatic injury that season, and he’s done it again this fall.

With running back Eddie Lacy placed on injured reserve after five games, the Packers haven’t been able to run the football. It’s become taboo among some fans to compliment, praise or otherwise credit McCarthy and his offense, but give him his due. He reacted accordingly to the lack of a running game.

On the season, McCarthy has called pass plays on 72 percent of his offensive snaps, compared to 28 percent traditional run plays. That split has grown more lopsided since Lacy’s season-ending ankle injury, with the Packers having a 76-24 pass-run distribution in their past six games.

It’s a departure from McCarthy’s traditional play-calling model. In his first 10 seasons, the Packers had a total pass-run distribution of 63-37.

“With Eddie being out,” receiver Davante Adams said, “it changed the dynamic of what we do around here, of how we’re moving the ball. It took a while to get acclimated to what we’re going to do, but we’re figuring it out now.”

The playbook hasn’t changed. It’s the same offense, same terminology. Same plays. Compared to the previous 10 years, the Packers’ approach is entirely different.

Maybe this was inevitable. When the Packers broke training camp, they had a two-time MVP quarterback and seven receivers on their 53-man roster. They had just two halfbacks.

Circumstances only widened the discrepancy.

“It’s tailored to use what we have,” receiver Randall Cobb said of the Packers’ offense. “Right now, we’re using what we have to the best of our ability.”

Since the time Brett Favre was behind center, the Packers have always been a pass-first team. Under McCarthy, it’s never been this extreme.

Adams said it’s “pretty similar” to a college spread offense. With pass rushers knowing what’s coming, Bakhtiari admitted it puts “stress” on an offensive line.

Bakhtiari also understands the Packers need to stick with what works.

“If we need to pass the ball 70 times to win,” Bakhtiari said, “let’s pass the ball. If we need to run the ball 70 times, let’s run the ball. Do we care? No. We’re here to do our job, and do it at a high level at the offensive line unit, regardless what they ask us to do.”

The Packers had their first four-game losing streak in eight years, but it was hardly their offense’s fault. Their 26.6 points per game over their past six games have been good enough to win more, if only their defense got more stops.

When the Packers moved the football in the past six games, it’s been through the air. On drives that have ended in scoring position, they have an 80-20 pass-run distribution since losing Lacy. Drives that haven’t reached scoring position have a 74-26 split.

The Packers had a scoring drive of 10 pass plays, no runs against Chicago. Thirteen passes, one run at Atlanta. They called pass plays on their final 13 snaps against Indianapolis, two drives ending with touchdowns.

Since their second half against the Bears, the only time the Packers offense has found trouble is when they’re tried to balance their distribution between pass and run plays. They opened their loss at Tennessee with three straight punts, calling seven pass plays and five run plays during that stretch. The next week, the Packers opened with three consecutive three-and-outs, calling five pass plays and four runs.

After their third three-and-out in Washington, the Packers ditched the run game. On the next drive, McCarthy called 16 pass plays and three runs on a lengthy touchdown drive.

They finally opened it up from the beginning Monday night in Philadelphia. The Packers opened with eight pass plays, two runs on a 75-yard touchdown drive. Their early success through the air helped set up the run, providing more success on the ground late.

“I think that definitely helps,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said.

It isn’t a perfect approach. There’s a reason balance is the ideal for an NFL offense. Without a running game, it’s impossible to establish big plays off play-action passes. A lopsided pass-run ratio also makes it difficult to have many seven-step drops, which allows receivers time to run downfield routes.

But the Packers’ quick, short passing game has been their best offense this season. It’s fair to wonder whether a pass-only offense is sustainable in the NFL, but changing it now would only go against what’s proven to work.

“It’s sustainable,” Adams said. “If we’ve done it one game, we can do it any other game. I don’t see any difference. It’s just a matter of executing on the things, being sharp on our break points, things like that. Running the routes, and just getting open.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws a pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during a NFL football game at Lincoln Financial Field.The Packers defeated the Eagles 27-13.
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