It's a dream come true, right? Packers are dangerously thin at running back, so Ted Thompson does the unthinkable: he takes the free-agent plunge and brings in a 1,000-yard veteran rusher. And they lived happily ever after.
Well, a couple snarls in that perm, as far as I'm concerned. First of all, this isn't a "plunge"...Cedric Benson wasn't exactly a big UFA sitting out there weighing offers. But moreso, while Benson has all the makings of a great story, there's a couple reasons why I would watch the 49er game closely before ordering your new jersey.
1) Mike McCarthy: McCarthy has always had some decent, serviceable running backs. They've ranged from Ryan Grant to James Starks, but you can't say he's never had potential. But running the ball has never been something McCarthy has been willing to stick to over the course of an entire season: something you really need if you're going to have a 1,000-yard back. Last season, the Packers passed the ball 60.02% of the time, eighth most in the league and only Detroit and Tampa Bay were ahead of the Packers significantly.
A running game requires patience in the early going, so that those frustrating three-yard pickups wear down defenders and make the big bursts you need in the second half a reality, not a stroke of luck. But McCarthy has doubled down on the no-huddle offense this preseason, and there's no reason to believe that it isn't going to be his bread-and-butter in 2012.
Look for Alex Green and John Kuhn to line up back there, two shifty backs who fit the out-of-the-backfield blocker/receiver role far better than a battering ram like Benson.
2) The offensive line: In 2006, the Packers made a decision to dedicate themselves to a zone-blocking scheme. While the scheme has been allowed to morph over the years, it still works at its best in the ZBS.
This may be just my opinion, and it has been so since 2006, but the ZBS is a bit of a cheat for teams that don't usually have good power running games, whether because of the skill set of the backs or the skill sets of the linemen. In the Packers' case, the linemen need to be pass blockers first, and the run blocking is simplified into the typical zone system of everyone blocking one direction (with a chop block on the end), allowing the back to make one cut and find a hole.
The Packers have excelled with Ryan Grant over the years (when healthy), whose best runs have consistently come out of that "one cut and go" setup. John Kuhn also has been a piece in that puzzle. But the ZBS was not Benson's system. He has been a power back in run-first offenses in Chicago (pre-Cutler) and Cincinnati. While the Packers got Benson going fairly well in the third preseason game, it will be a different story against a much stouter first-string 49er defense.
Benson thrives playing behind a power line that blocks straight forward and opens holes for him to lumber through. He may not find that in Green Bay.
3) Aaron Rodgers: The Packers had the fifth-fewest plays from scrimmage offensively last season (988), the third-most yards per game (405), and the most points per game (560). In a nutshell, the Packers offense enjoys quick drives and big plays, and one big reason is number 12.
Aaron Rodgers is, perhaps nearly to the point of going overboard, the heart and soul of everything that happens on offense. Rodgers attempted 552 passes last season, was sacked 29 times, and rushed the ball 60 times. Now subtract the 28 field goal attempts and the 55 punts from the 988 scrimmage plays and Aaron Rodgers WAS the play 70.8% of the time, either with his arm or his legs.
You can't look at the stats last year and deny the effectiveness of putting the ball in the hands of the guy who sets the all-time efficiency record and leads the team with an average 4.3 yards per rush. The fact that we're going to see the no-huddle even more often is McCarthy confirming that this offense starts and ends with the quarterback.
This creates fewer opportunities for a back like Benson, who will be at his best with his quarterback under center in a traditional offense. Neither Rodgers nor this offense are anything close to traditional.
So, you might ask, what IS Benson's value then, besides a veteran presence to tutor Alex Green? In one word: insurance.
If Aaron Rodgers, who puts his noggin in harm's way 70% of the time ends up getting knocked with his fourth concussion in less than two years, you can count on him spending at least one start on the bench in 2012. At that point, Graham Harrell enters the game and, the Chiefs game notwithstanding, the offense WILL change around him. Like it or not, there are simply things Harrell cannot do as well as Rodgers, and two of them are having pinpoint accuracy while under pressure and the ability to sense pressure and adjust while still going through reads.
You play to your strengths, as any good coach will do, and at that point Benson becomes far more of a threat on the ground. Harrell will likely not be handling the ball 70% of the time, and defenses will immediately load the box to stop the run and put immediate pressure on the young quarterback. Enter Cedric Benson, a guy who can crash into the line with the best of them.
The signing of Benson isn't a waste by any length of the imagination. Hopefully, we won't need him in the way that I fear they would. But it is nice to know that Packers have a legitimate power threat in the arsenal, even if they don't use it to do much more than put away games in the fourth quarter.
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