GREEN BAY - In the three days Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and his offensive staff had to draw up a game plan for the Detroit Lions, new ideas were pouring out of everyone almost as abundantly as the coffee that was fueling them.
When you’re tied for the most touchdowns in the NFL over the past 10 games and you have four guys with a combined seven 100-yard performances in either receiving or rushing over the past six and a quarterback with a 119.78 passer rating over the past five, you start to wonder what else is possible.
During the Packers’ five-game winning streak, McCarthy and his staff have been creative to a point but careful not to go away from their strengths just to try to fool the opposition.
Facing playoff elimination in the 256th and final regular-season game of the 2016 season, you have to wonder if the coaches will come up with some brainy new ideas to take advantage of a sudden abundance of talent at the skill positions.
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Maybe putting tight end Jared Cook at halfback or moving right tackle Bryan Bulaga to the other side in an unbalanced line or running back Ty Montgomery behind center in the “Wildcat” or putting Montgomery and fellow running back Christine Michael in the backfield together?
The possibilities are endless.
“We’ve always been on the high side of creativity and I think that’s important to stay on the front side of the curve, and that’s no different down the stretch,” McCarthy said Thursday. “But yes, you have to watch it.
“There’s really good plays that are thrown out every week. We had a quarterback meeting this morning; we threw out five plays and two of them were ones I put in. Still sick about it.
“But that’s the way it goes because I’ve learned a long time ago, if everybody in the room – most importantly the quarterback – is not totally comfortable with it, then you’re sitting there on Monday after the game saying, ‘You know that really wasn’t quite right.’ You have to push the envelope, but at the end of the day it’s got to fit.”
The Packers have done a little bit of that.
They put receiver Davante Adams in the backfield to help get him more involved. They moved Montgomery to running back and changed the blocking patterns two weeks ago to fit his style. They ran receiver Jeff Janis on end arounds that each gained 19 yards, one of them for a touchdown.
They moved receiver Jordy Nelson into the slot and watched him tear up the Minnesota Vikings for 154 yards and two touchdowns. And they found routes that worked for rookie Geronimo Allison because Randall Cobb was sidelined.
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Those were wrinkles the coaching staff put in to take advantage of match-ps they liked and create opportunities for different players. The foundation remains the McCarthy passing and running schemes, both of which have been in place for more than a decade.
“That’s the focus point as far as what we do and doing it at that high level,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “But we also take into consideration the creativity and when and how to apply it as long as it’s not overbearing from a volume standpoint.
“Obviously that factors into it.”
One of the possibilities the Packers still are researching revolves around Cook, the first tall, speedy tight end they’ve had since Jermichael Finley. The 6-5, 254-pound Cook is new to the offense and missed most of training camp because of a broken foot.
He was just starting to be fully integrated when he suffered a high ankle sprain against Detroit in Week 3. He missed six games and was basically forgotten.
It took no time for him to become part of the coaches’ thought process after catching six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in his return in Washington. But he wasn’t a focus in the next three games and it wasn’t until the Dec. 18 game at the Chicago Bears that he became someone the opposition needs to worry about.
“I think he’s starting to get more familiar with the offense and more comfortable with what (quarterback) Aaron (Rodgers) expects and them getting on the same page and building the chemistry,” tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said. “It’s been positive and the more comfortable he gets, I think the faster he plays.”
Against Minnesota last weekend, Cook at times lined up as a receiver wide to one side. On one of those occasions he and Montgomery tied up three defenders, allowing Nelson to come free right between them for a 21-yard touchdown.
McCarthy and his staff can draw on years of plays they used with Jermichael Finley to find new ways to use Cook. They can also poach some ideas from plays they’ve seen for pass-catching tight ends like Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, Seattle’s Jimmy Graham, Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert and Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph.
But they have to make sure the plays fit within their plan to take on the Detroit defense.
“Especially you get in these big games, guys have big ideas and that’s just a natural tendency,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Obviously you don’t want to change what you’ve been doing that’s been successful offensively.
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“(You’re) not looking for new ideas really, just different ways of getting the same things accomplished. The process really is everybody looks at it, get the game plan put together, and then throughout the course of the week, whether something doesn’t look good at practice or there’s an issue in protection or anything like that, that’s how things get weeded out.”
McCarthy has final say over the game plan, but the other gatekeeper is Rodgers, who has to execute the plays. If he tries a play out in practice and doesn’t feel he’s running it well enough, he has some say on whether it gets tossed.
Since he’s the decision-maker he has to see the play the way the coaches do.
“I mean, you have to have new wrinkles, and Aaron gives us great flexibility in that because he can handle it,” McCarthy said. “But it’s more about the timing and the precision with the route running and the details of not only the route but where’s the route at in the progression and how it times up and how it fits the protection.
“So you’ve got to really caution yourself.”