This season, Mike McCarthy made a decision that has, for the most part, gone under the radar. However, it might just represent a break from one of his biggest (and perhaps illest-advised) decisions early in his Packer coaching career.
Reshuffling the offensive line--placing his most accomplished linemen on the left side of the line (protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side)--was, in McCarthy's own words, an "old-fashioned" and "old-school" way to go about it. Most importantly, he placed guys in a spot and declared them set for the season, with only one position up for grabs.
This is a far cry from the chaos that reigned along the offensive line in the early days of Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy. With the Packers up against the cap, Thompson made the unpopular (but necessary) decision to allow stalwart guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle to leave. With center Mike Flanagan already hobbled by injuries, the 2005 version of the offensive line was a far cry from the steady lineup the Packers enjoyed under Mike Sherman (and Ahman Green enjoyed running behind).
Brett Favre and the Packers offense had one of their worst seasons ever in 2005, with the middle of the line manned (using the term loosely) by late-round projects and street free agents. Larry Beightol, the offensive line coach, was roundly criticized and let go at the end of the season, an unceremonious end for a man who had coached up perhaps the best offensive line the Packers had since the Lombardi Years.
Before he left, however, he made his infamous assessment of the talent he had to work with: "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit."
So, in 2006, McCarthy and Thompson made their critical decision: instead of utilizing stud, prototypical lineman as the Packers had just a few scant years prior, they went the direction of undersized, versatile, and interchangeable jack-of-all trade linemen. It certainly would be easier (and cheaper) to bring in "tweeners" over the guys with a pedigree.
Indeed, Thompson's draft that year brought in three interior linemen, and each draft report had said the words, "good prospect for a zone blocking scheme".
Indeed, Daryn Colledge, Tony Moll, and Jason Spitz all did the Offensive Line Shuffle along those three positions, and none of them truly panned out as a solid offensive lineman. Most of all, they lacked a sense of nastiness and confidence that had been the calling card of the old Sherman lines.
The Zone Blocking Scheme itself, especially at the time, was already a bit passe', an experiment that the Denver Broncos worked quite well with non-prototype linemen aided by the element of surprise. And over McCarthy's reign, the ZBS has had limited success, with running backs having short-term bursts of production. The "everyone block the same direction and lay a chop block on the end" might have helped a good one-cut running back like James Starks gain some yards, but the ongoing streak of non-100 yard rushers should be a nail in the ZBS's coffin.
Notice you don't hear too much about the ZBS anymore. And with more plays featuring pulling guards, its clear that it is no longer the only scheme the Packers use. But along with the struggles in the running game, more important has been the lack of protection offered to Aaron Rodgers. With 211 sacks since taking the helm of the team back in 2008, concerns over Rodgers' repeated concussions have jumped front and center with his new contract.
But just two years ago, the Packers continued to play around with their linemen, taking their first-round draft pick (and prototype NFL tackle) Derrick Sherrod and working him exclusively in training camp and preseason at guard. It was a failed experiment that at best even the most sympathetic onlookers had to raise an eyebrow at. While losing reps at tackle may not have contributed to the devastating injury Sherrod suffered later in the season, it still had to be a sobering lesson for a head coach still trying to fill the void left by the loss of the stud lineman they had penciled in to be the tackle for the next ten years.
Last year, the amount of time Aaron Rodgers seemed to have to throw grew shorter and shorter as the year went on. Luckily, Rodgers doesn't panic in the backfield, choosing to either scramble or take the sack over throwing a risky pass. But the decision to continue to play the most accomplished lineman on the right side of the line, while leaving the blind side to an untested Marshall Newhouse didn't make much sense.
Bryan Bulaga had been a second-team All American at left tackle at Iowa, yet was moved to right tackle when he came to the Packers. Now, he's moving back to what was his natural position. Naturally, the switch is going to take some time, but it certainly seems far more "old-school" to put your best tackle on the left side of a right-handed quarterback.
The guards are going to take some more time. TJ Lang, who is moving from the left side to the right, actually played left tackle in his final two seasons of college. Josh Sitton, moving from the right side to left, actually played along the right side in college. Both have quietly had their struggles so far in training camp, adjusting to their new sides of play.
Mike McCarthy brought the linemen in this spring and told them, "This is where you are going to play this season. Get used to it." While certainly a surprise for the veterans, it wasn't completely unexpected, as Sitton had just texted Bulaga prior to that meeting hypothesizing that there was going to be a shake-up. In some ways, you have to trust McCarthy's judgment that this is the best place for these guys. Combine that decision with the drafting of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to take more pressure of the passing game, and its clear that McCarthy is done playing games with Rodgers in the backfield.
Yes, as Ted Thompson likes to say, competition is good. Versatility is good. And at nearly every other position group on either side of the ball, it works. It really does. We think nothing of seeing AJ Hawk or BJ Raji moving to the outside, or of Tramon Williams lining up on the opposite side of the field.
But in the heyday of the Sherman lines, Mike Flanagan would march up to the line and tell the defense exactly what play they were going to run. He'd hike the ball and he, Wahle, Rivera, Mark Taucher, and Chad Clifton would blast open a hole for Ahman Green, exactly where he said they were going to run it.
There was no flip-flopping or shuffling among these men. They were masters of their position, in on every down. And they dominated. If someone was hurt, it was "next man up".
If that is what McCarthy meant by going "old-fashioned", I'm all for it. And its about time.