Dougherty: McCarthy should stay course

Pete Dougherty, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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Mike McCarthy wants the tight end position to be a big part of his offense.

He likes the flexibility that a tight end, or better yet multiple tight ends, offers a play caller because of the dual threat as blocker and receiver.

He also coaches a Green Bay Packers team that plays its home games in the cold, so he wants a tough, physical identity to fit the climate. Tight end plays a big part in that.

The problem is, McCarthy doesn’t have the talent at tight end to play the way he wants. If we’ve learned anything about the Packers through seven games, that’s it. The coach seemed to acknowledge as much in his team’s 33-32 loss at Atlanta last week when he all but benched tight ends Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo for the fourth quarter.

McCarthy’s new receivers-oriented approach, forced onto him by injuries at running back, has worked. The more he’s played four and five receivers the last two weeks, and the less he’s used Rodgers at tight end, the better Aaron Rodgers has performed. The two-time MVP quarterback looked more like his old self against Chicago and Atlanta than he had for most of the previous year.

The question is, as the weather turns colder and his team gets healthier, will McCarthy give in to the urge to return to more conventional football when playing unconventionally is getting better results?

“We’re going to throw the ball, but we need to get our run game going,” McCarthy said Monday. “Because we’re not going back to last year. We’re going to run the football, we’re going to play-action pass game. We’re going to play to our quarterback.”

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It’s worth remembering that we should judge NFL coaches by what they do, not what they say. And McCarthy’s words are open to interpretation. But Aaron Rodgers has played most of his best football of the season the last six quarters, so I’d think twice about changing course — climate and improved health at running back be damned.

By changing course, I mean from the four- and five-receiver sets McCarthy has favored the last two games. Against Chicago and Atlanta combined, the Packers averaged 29 points and 369 yards, and Rodgers had a passer rating of 111.7. In the first five games, playing with more conventional personnel, those numbers were 22.8 points, 332 yards and an 87.6 rating.

The evidence is there from last week at Atlanta. At the risk of bogging down in numbers, here’s the gist: Aside from the hurry-up possessions at the end of each half, the Packers had seven drives. On the four they scored touchdowns, they had at least one tight end on the field on only 40 percent of the plays (12 of 30). On the three drives they punted, they had at least one tight end on the field 88 percent of the time (14 of 16 snaps).

Looked at another way, McCarthy opened the second half wanting to run. On the first two drives of the third quarter, he played at least one tight end on eight of 12 snaps. He punted both times. The next time he had the ball, his offense put up a 12-play touchdown drive on which a tight end played only two snaps.

The more I watch the Packers, the harder it is to justify playing Richard Rodgers more than maybe one-quarter of the snaps a game. He’s at 61.1 percent for the season, though last week it was only 42 percent, and the Packers put up 32 points.

Rodgers has good hands, but he’s not quick or fast, and he’s not a good blocker. He’s not a matchup problem in any way. When he’s on the field, defenses can go nickel, which means they can field two linebackers to play the run without concern for matching up with him.

When McCarthy deploys four or five receivers, defenses either have to go dime (six defensive backs, one linebacker), which takes a run-stopping linebacker off the field, or go nickel and risk a really bad matchup in coverage. Since Rodgers isn’t a good blocker anyway, where’s the advantage in playing him regularly?

And when tight end Jared Cook returns from his high-ankle sprain? I don’t see why much would change. He’s a glorified receiver anyway, and not much of a blocker, either. Just think of him as a receiver in those four- and five-receiver sets.

McCarthy went to a receiver-heavy offense two weeks ago because injuries wiped him out at running back. In the coming weeks, that will change. The Packers’ recent release of Knile Davis suggests that James Starks will be back soon from a knee injury. I also take it as a sign that they expect Eddie Lacy (ankle surgery) to return from injured reserve, not cornerback Sam Shields (concussion).

No doubt, McCarthy will welcome getting back his lead running back. Lacy is tailor-made for winter in Wisconsin.

But if and when that time comes, I wouldn’t change much. Keep throwing those receivers on the field and spreading defenses with the short passing game. Run when they’re thinking pass.

It looks like the Packers finally have found a way to help their quarterback thrive. Don’t mess with that. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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