A quick look at the Packers starting running back heading into 2017, third year veteran Ty Montgomery. (May 16, 2017)
GREEN BAY – Workouts started at 9 a.m. sharp. Ty Montgomery arrived a little early each morning at Michael Johnson Performance, not far from his Dallas home, finishing his running back metamorphosis.
His transition started a half season earlier. Not even six months before arriving at MJP. It was an emergency solution when the Green Bay Packers plucked Montgomery from their overpopulated receiver depth chart, dropping him into a depleted backfield.
They didn’t know the position change would catch lightning in a bottle. They didn’t care if it ignited a fantasy football sensation. A running back wearing No. 88? The Packers just needed someone to keep their sinking offense afloat.
They got more than that: 701 yards from scrimmage in 10 games. Montgomery defibrillated a run game missing Eddie Lacy, without consistent touches (just 77 carries) or fully knowing what he was doing.
“I was running on a lot of instincts when I ran the football,” Montgomery said. “I knew where I was supposed to be going, but it was instincts.”
Little can be learned during midseason position changes. Fall practices are designed around each week’s game plan, not player development. So Montgomery’s goal this spring was simple: become a running back. Complete the conversion.
Montgomery said he felt like a rookie entering his first offseason, which wasn’t far from reality. A year ago, ankle surgery kept him in a walking boot until July. He didn’t run for months. Forget being unable to train as a tailback. Montgomery couldn’t prepare for the season, period.
He didn’t emerge unscathed. His ribs took a hard hit from Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal barely a minute into the NFC championship game’s second half, Montgomery’s final carry. Not long after returning from Atlanta, Montgomery was back in the Dallas suburbs at MJP, a Frankenstein lab for athletes with a 12,000-foot indoor facility, state-of-the-art weight room, 80 yards of field turf, 23-meter outdoor pool, and all the latest training technology.
It took Montgomery’s ribs a couple weeks to heal. Then, personal coach Brian Abadie said, Montgomery was full go. He trained five days a week starting in February, each session lasting three or four hours, with weekends off.
Abadie, a former college basketball player with a master’s degree in health and human development, trains athletes in all four major pro sports as MJP’s high-performance coordinator. He led Montgomery’s workouts two years ago before the NFL scouting combine. Back then, Montgomery was a big receiver leaving Stanford.
This offseason, the objective was different. Abadie created a holistic program focused on adding strength without losing speed, important for tailbacks.
“We’re trying to build a little extra padding on him now,” Abadie said, “to be able to handle some of those hits.”
In Abadie’s workouts, Montgomery found a cocoon. A training regimen to transform his body. The Packers prefer to muzzle their enthusiasm for now, knowing Montgomery is still inexperienced, still raw, just entering his role as a full-time starter.
They are cautious, but quietly pleased. Their confidence showed this spring when they waited until the fourth round to draft a tailback.
“He's our starting running back," coach Mike McCarthy said of Montgomery after the draft.
Two days later, the Packers cleaned house. Of the three tailbacks on their roster before the draft, only Montgomery remains. His offseason workouts should make a big difference.
This fall, Montgomery’s metamorphosis will be complete.
‘He could play running back’
Abadie remembers those pre-combine workouts. The NFL wanted Montgomery to be a receiver, so that’s what they did. Each drill was designed to make Montgomery sleek, swift, slippery quick.
Their mission: mold Montgomery into a burner who could beat defensive backs deep.
He wasn’t asked to do that much in college. Stanford’s offense revolved around letting Montgomery make plays after the catch. Its purpose was to get him the football as quickly as possible. No need for complex routes.
In Montgomery’s final season, according to Pro Football Focus, 32 percent of his routes were screens, and 23 percent were short hitches.
“He had plays where it was, ‘Let’s get the ball into Ty’s hands and let him go to work,’” Abadie said. “That’s what he always told us here, ‘I just need the ball in my hands. However we can best get it into my hands, I can usually do good things.’
“So moving him to running back was just more touches a game that he can have an opportunity to make a big play.”
That doesn’t mean Montgomery saw his career unfolding like this. At his relocated locker, Montgomery grinned and shook his head when asked if he ever envisioned being a starting running back in the NFL. No, this wasn’t his plan.
Abadie, recalling those pre-combine workouts, was less surprised.
“When he came in,” Abadie said, “we thought, ‘This dude is huge.’ He had the broad shoulders, he had the kind of thick bones, thick legs, big arms. Everything just structurally was bigger than most of your receivers. So we looked at him and were like, ‘Man, he could play running back if he added 10 pounds.’”
As a receiver, weight was always an obstacle. Naturally brawny, Montgomery struggled trimming to 215 pounds, his team-ascribed target. Athletically, Abadie said, Montgomery is more comfortable at running back. He weighs 220 pounds now, easier to maintain.
He’s also stronger. In the past, Abadie explained, Montgomery had to reduce his weightlifting. Instead of doing five sets on dead lift, he might only do three.
“Now,” Montgomery said, “I lift like a running back.”
The difference is five pounds in weight, much more in muscle. A year ago, Montgomery was anatomically structured to play receiver. Lean. Light. He needed a different build.
In exit interviews, the Packers mandated Montgomery get stronger. Running backs are a “different breed,” Abadie said. They take a pounding between the tackles. Montgomery’s “extra padding” serves a purpose.
More muscle should help in short yardage. He might not have Lacy’s size, but at 6-foot, 220 pounds, Montgomery’s height and weight are almost identical to franchise rushing leader Ahman Green (6-foot, 218). He was never small, but now Montgomery has the strength to match his position.
The challenge, Abadie said, was bulking up without losing the athleticism that made Montgomery difficult to defend.
‘I can run with the wideouts’
They don’t train running backs at Michael Johnson Performance. Not even football players. Every client is treated as a world-class athlete. Olympians are sculpted here. The facility opened in 2007 with backing from one of the greatest in American history, the four-time gold medalist.
Michael Johnson helps every MJP client – including Montgomery – prepare for their 40-yard dash before the combine. He hasn’t aided Montgomery’s training this offseason, but the same workout habits used during Johnson’s career are implemented.
Montgomery usually arrived at the facility around 8:30 a.m., starting with stretches. Then his schedule veered depending on the day. Montgomery’s workouts strove for symmetry between strength and speed. Most days, Abadie said, they split into an hour of each, ending with 30-minute recovery.
Speed drills focused on four elements every tailback needs: max velocity (breakaway runs), short acceleration (hitting the hole), short-area change of direction (avoiding tacklers) and angular (turning the corner). The inclusive approach enabled Montgomery to not lose a step despite more muscle.
“I’m still making sure I can run with the wideouts,” he said.
In workouts, Montgomery builds max velocity like a track athlete, using little resistance to sprint short distances.
“He doesn’t have that many plays that he’s going to break for 40, 60 yards,” Abadie said, “but when he does he wants to make sure his body goes through those range of motions at top speed.”
Acceleration drills are more grueling. Montgomery either pushes or drags a sled, often loaded with weight, up to 20 yards. Power comes from the lower body. Speed comes in bursts. Legs, pumping like pistons, numb with fatigue.
Abadie watches how Montgomery leans into the sled, or away from it.
“It’s really that 5-, 10-, 15-yard acceleration drive,” Abadie said, “to maybe get to that second level or create some space once he gets past that second level.”
For change of direction, Montgomery is a puppet on strings. A bungee cord attached to his hips pulls one direction as he jolts another. The bungee provides resistance while simulating maneuvers he’ll make in the Packers zone-blocking scheme, as well as the open field.
Short-area direction change is only slightly different than angular. In both, agility is the focus. Montgomery cuts as quickly as possible, no running in a straight line. These are the every-down skills required at his new position.
Montgomery has plenty of company at MJP. Darren McFadden spends most of his offseasons training there. Jay Ajayi worked out last offseason before making the Pro Bowl. Ameer Abdullah, who prepared for the combine with Montgomery, continues to train there.
For each, the offseason schedule divides into two parts. Before players report for organized team activities, workouts focus on honing athleticism. After minicamp, they return to Dallas for a program Abadie calls the “pre-training camp” phase.
Football drills mix into the pre-training camp phase. Former Dallas Cowboys assistant Robert Ford, a three-time Super Bowl champion, consults with running backs. But Abadie is quick to identify the purpose MJP serves – or doesn’t – in an NFL offseason.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m not going to do much to improve his skill as a football player. That’s for his coaches to do up in Green Bay. Here, we’re trying to develop him and maximize his potential.”
‘Glimpses of greatness’
When Montgomery returned to Green Bay for the team’s offseason program, he sat in the film room with running backs coach Ben Sirmans. Together, they took inventory of Montgomery’s short introduction to the backfield.
Sirmans already knew what they would find. Not long after the season, he gathered film and started analyzing. A trend emerged.
“(Until) putting together cut-ups on him and really studying all of his runs,” Sirmans said, “you really don’t realize how many tackles he broke last year. You really don’t think of a guy – I know he’s close to 220 – but as a receiver you don’t imagine a guy being able to break that many arm tackles or getting hit and still running. He actually at the end of the day did a really good job, and you can see it as an instinctive runner.”
Instincts carry a tailback only so far. This offseason, Montgomery said, has been about acquiring knowledge.
Already, he can sense a difference. The game has “slowed down tremendously” since last fall, Montgomery said. The great running backs have a sixth sense, anticipatory vision. Montgomery said he’s starting to see plays before they unfold, reading what defenders will do.
“Now, I know techniques,” Montgomery said. “I know rotations and linebacker positions and fronts and understanding gap rules and what the defense is supposed to be doing. Now that I get out there, I know my reads and my aiming points. I can just add that to my instinct, and I’m excited to do that.”
Abadie can tell Montgomery is happier now. A year ago, he was buried at an unprecedentedly deep position, one of seven receivers on roster. His role on offense was undefined, if it existed at all.
Most receivers wouldn’t welcome moving to running back, a brutal position where an accelerated physical toll shortens careers. Montgomery happily embraced the change. It meant he had purpose beyond special teams on the 53-man roster, prominence in the Packers backfield.
As his career solidified, Montgomery’s mood brightened.
“When he was playing receiver,” Abadie said, “I didn’t get as quick of responses back. I didn’t get as much information back. I think he was beating himself up a little bit about it. Whereas once he had his position change, he didn’t have a great game every time he stepped back there, but he always showed some glimpses of greatness back there that, hey, you can play this position.
“Once he changed positions and was moved to the backfield, I got quicker texts back, I got more responses back. I saw a little bit more of his personality in his messaging. It was cool to see that because I was able to feel, ‘This is Ty.’”
Montgomery’s conversion isn’t complete. Training camp will provide his most valuable education yet. Perhaps his biggest struggle last season, and the area Montgomery can grow most, is pass blocking. Live reps, Sirmans said, is the only opportunity for running backs to develop.
It’s the last step in Montgomery’s metamorphosis. This offseason, he preserved the athleticism that made him a difficult matchup, but Montgomery closed a chapter in his career. He left his football cocoon a different player, “extra padding” allowing him to be an every-down running back.
Underneath all that armor, his No. 88 might be the only thing resembling a receiver.
IF YOU GO
What: Packers' final two open OTAs (weather permitting).
When: 11:30 a.m. Thursday and Tuesday.
Where: Clarke Hinkle Field.
Note: Standing room only along South Oneida Street. Practice will be moved inside the Don Hutson Center and closed to the public in the event of inclement weather.