Oh, poor Alex Green. It has to be discouraging to come off a frustrating rookie injury, be handed your chance as the starter, and to see all of Packer Nation begging for Ted Thompson to trade away draft picks for aging running backs to take your place after only a few games.
But, this is the fast-food, risk-reward of the NFL, where you need to perform now or get out of the way for the next perceived savior. And of course, there’s nothing more logical than Ted Thompson trading away draft picks to acquire a player’s contract he didn’t negotiate himself [sarcasm off]. Thompson is just as likely to start eating his own arm during a press conference as to exchange his precious draft picks for an overbloated salary.
But, back to Green. If Thompson didn’t believe the Packers could do something with the running game, he might have done something. His inaction leads me to believe that he and Mike McCarthy believe the offense can function as is. Unfortunately, that might mean it will be functioning without a functional running game, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But, if the Packers are smart, they can get a servicible running game out of their stable of running backs, and some very productive yards out of Alex Green.
The first thing you have to do is assess Green’s abilities, and the conclusion I jump to are two-fold.
1) Alex Green has tremendous straight-line speed. You only need to go look at his 41-yard scamper against the Colts to see that when he gets a little daylight up the middle, he has a gear that a few, young running backs still have before wear and tear removes it. And when he gets those opportunities, particularly up the middle, he averages a good five-yards-plus per carry.
2) Green’s Achilles’ heel, however, is his inability to move laterally. Unlike, Ryan Grant (or, say, the king of the lateral move, Barry Sanders), Green can’t fluidly shift his forward momentum to a sideways motion without coming almost to a full and complete stop. This severely limits the runs Green can pull off from the backfield. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was against the Rams in the third quarter, and started his run to the right. A gaping hole opened up to his left, and he instinctively saw it and tried to cut laterally to hit it. But he stopped all of his progress and his feet slipped out from under him.
Going back to Ryan Grant, you can say what you want about him, but he was a very good fit for the hybrid ZBS that the Packers run. No, he wasn’t some dynamic, shifty back that would succeed in any offense, but he was very good at the “one-cut-and-go” plays that the zone blocking scheme demanded. In fact, you could make the case that he might be the complete opposite of Green: most of his yards came off-tackle, while most of Green’s come up the middle.
The idea of running a sweep play with Grant in the backfield was attempted on a few occasions, and usually ended up a footrace to the sideline at the line of scrimmage. He didn’t have that extra gear to make the wide, sweeping corner ahead of the defenders. However, Green does, and McCarthy has used this to his advantage, pulling offensive linemen several times to give Green the chance to make that run.
In other words, Green has value. He just may not have value as an every-down back, at least not right now. Talking with Tom Oates on Cheesehead Radio this week, Oates seemed to believe there was a chance that Green could still be taught the skills and develop that ability to make those lateral moves. In the end, he is starting to remind be of another Thompson draftee that couldn’t quite handle the starting role, but excelled as a third-down back. Yes, I’m thinking of 2007 second-rounder Brandon Jackson.
He might be able to develop, as Brandon Jackson did, into a serviceable running back, but I’d rather have him as a weapon–and this is what the Packers need to get the rush off of Aaron Rodgers. In essence, bringing in a player like Stephen Jackson wasn’t a dumb idea on the surface: a first- and second-down running back who was a threat to break it and kept the defenses honest, leaving them just a little more battered and tentative for a spread-offense third-down with Green in the backfield, a la Brandon. This would give Green more opportunities to find holes up the middle, or catch the ball in the flat with some space in front of him, giving him the chance to use that gear that can gash opposing defenses.
The question is, then, do the Packers have a player on their roster who can take those punishing first- and second-round runs? And again, our eyes fall to James Starks, once perceived as the savior in his own right. Injuries and missed opportunities have reduced his expectations, and have us dismissing his potential contributions. And, he hasn’t exactly impressed with his limited opportunities this year, though we have to remember he’s coming off a turf toe injury that we’ve seen slow down and limit a lot of great players over the years (Sterling Sharpe comes to mind).
As fantasy prognosticators across the nation are calling James Starks a hot pick-up this week, they have it all wrong. It’s not because he’s going to be better option than Green, who has the possibility of breaking it every time he touches the ball. Those days may already be passed for an oft-injured Starks, who is in his third season in the league and still has only two official starts to his credit. No, Starks may be the guy who plays the role of the set-up man, the uncelebrated guy who pounds the defensive line for three yards and a cloud of dust, but allows Green to enter the game and pull off the big play.
As fans, we need to be patient and learn lessons from the past. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia was a player who should have never been an every-down player, but Joe Johnson took the blame in 2002 for not being effective while KGB racked up the sacks in obvious passing downs. What we may have failed to notice is the dirty work done by the veteran, softening up the offensive tackles so they were surprised by the speed rush of Gbaja-Biamilia.
We sure noticed it the next season, when KGB became a full-time starter, believing he could translate his stats to three downs and, thus, have three times the number of sacks. It didn’t happen, as Gbaja-Biamilia was a one-trick pony, with one solid move that tackles quickly adapted to. Johnson, laughed out of town with pitchforks and torches, must have smiled as he watched KGB’s humbling season where he piled up sacks in unimportant games, but was effectively erased from the field at the times the Packers needed a solid pass-rush most.
It’s much the same idea here, and Starks might be able to put up anemic stats, but play an important role in softening up the defensive line for Green on passing downs.
The question becomes whether or not the Packers can be patient with such a plan. But if the pass rush against Aaron Rodgers is not curtailed soon, Mike McCarthy may have a far bigger problem to deal with.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer for CheeseheadTV. He is also the co-host of the weekly live Packer podcast Cheesehead Radio. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision. em>