GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Brett Favre spent more than half of his career as the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback accompanied by a 1,000-yard running back. In nine of his 16 seasons with the Packers, he shared a backfield with one -- from Edgar Bennett (once) to Dorsey Levens (twice) to Ahman Green (six).
Aaron Rodgers has had that just four times in his 11 seasons as a starter and none since Eddie Lacy in 2014.
That trend could change, even if the Packers don’t sign a free agent such as Le’Veon Bell or spend a high draft on a running back.
And it could help Rodgers get back to being, well, Aaron Rodgers -- something that is new coach Matt LaFleur’s No. 1 charge. It might take some convincing on LaFleur’s part to get Rodgers to understand how a better balance between the run and the pass could help the quarterback -- and more importantly the offense -- thrive.
Since Rodgers became the starter in 2008, the Packers have the third-highest dropback percentage in the NFL at 64.2, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, they led the NFL with an out-of-whack 71.5 percent dropback rate. In Mike McCarthy’s 12-plus years as coach, the Packers had the second-highest dropback rate, 63.8 percent.
Compare that to, say, the 2003 season, when Green set the single-season franchise rushing record of 1,883 yards, and the Packers’ dropback rate was 49.2 percent. Or in 2004, when Green rushed for 1,163 yards and the Packers had a 58.1 percent dropback rate.
In both seasons, Favre still managed to top the 30-touchdown pass mark, and in 2004 he topped the 4,000-yard passing mark. The Packers made the playoffs both times, and they were a failed fourth-and-26 defensive stop away from the NFC Championship Game following the 2003 season.
For better or worse, McCarthy believed the offense revolved around the quarterback. Who knows exactly how often Rodgers checked out of run plays. But while McCarthy often spoke of more attempts for the running game, his offense revolved around the passing game.
At this point, LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett appear committed to some changes in that area.
“I’m feeling that,” said running backs coach Ben Sirmans, who was retained from McCarthy’s staff. “Also, through early discussions and talking football, I think that’s something -- you just look at the facts. I think last year, run percentage-wise, I think Tennessee was in the top three in the NFL, and then if you go back to ’17 when Nathaniel was at Jacksonville, I think they were one or two in run percentage. That leads you to think we’re going to be running the football when you start looking at those things. I’m excited about that because I feel good about the guys we have up front and the guys we have in the backfield, and I think it’ll just help the passing game and everything else flow a lot better.”
Aaron Jones, who led the NFL with a 5.47-yard rushing average last season, looks like a good fit for LaFleur’s outside-zone running game that mirrors what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Rams coach Sean McVay run. Jamaal Williams might be better suited for a power running game but will be given the chance to adapt.
As Tennessee’s offensive coordinator last season, LaFleur rode running back Derrick Henry (1,059 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Dion Lewis (517 yards), and the Titans averaged 126.4 rushing yards per game. As Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator in 2017, Hackett featured rookie running back Leonard Fournette (1,040 yards, nine touchdowns) as the Jaguars posted a league-best 141.4 rushing yards per game.
LaFleur even hired an offensive line coach, Adam Stenavich, specifically to implement the outside-zone running game. LaFleur opted to go with Stenavich’s experience in the system -- he was the 49ers’ assistant offensive line coach -- instead of retaining the overall more experienced former line coach James Campen.
“With us, it’s a matter of marrying up the run game and the pass game and having a good system in place,” Stenavich said. “Everything plays off of the zone. It’s getting the offense to be cohesive and make one thing look like another and really focus on coming off the ball and having fun. O-linemen like doing that.
“Very excited about our running backs. Ben speaks very highly of them. I can’t wait to watch those guys work.”
The coaches spent the past several weeks working through LaFleur’s offense before they headed to the combine this week, and they will finish that work before the players arrive for the offseason program on April 1.
Things like how much freedom Rodgers will have at the line of scrimmage are still to be determined, but quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy said last week: “From what I see so far and what we’re watching on film and what Coach LaFleur is detailing up for us right now, I think it’s going to be a really good fit.”
And that excites those directly involved with the running game.
“The biggest thing about it is every year when you start off the new season, you always hit that reset button and the juices start flowing because of the expectations you have as a team as a position coach and what you expect to get out of it,” Sirmans said. “You can say it is a little bit more hyped now than it has been before because, again, the understanding we’re going to have opportunities and those guys are going to have more opportunities to run the ball.”