GREEN BAY – While the days of NFL running backs carrying the ball more than 350 times a season appear to be a thing of the past, so too is their relative invisibility in the passing game.
There was a time not so long ago when throwing to a running back was seen as a last resort, glass to be shattered only once all other receiver options had been exhausted.
Four of the top 20 receivers in the NFL last season are classified as running backs, the first time that’s happened since 1993 (Terry Kirby, Herschel Walker, Ronnie Harmon and Johnny Johnson). Even then, none of those past backs came close to the 80-catch, 700-yard thresholds Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, James White and Alvin Kamara crossed in 2018.
As recently as five years ago, there wasn’t a single running back in the league who cracked the top 20 in receptions. The closest one, Pierre Thomas, tied for 24th that year with 77 catches but averaged 6.7 yards per catch that season (the lowest of the four last year was Kamara’s 7.9 average).
The game has changed, and as Head Coach Matt LaFleur looks to upload his philosophies into the Packers’ offensive database, he fully intends for Green Bay’s running backs to be a part of the passing game’s plans for 2019.
“Oh, I love it when we can get them the ball in the passing game,” said LaFleur after the conclusion of the Packers’ offseason program. “That’s one more eligible that the defense really has to focus on. And when you talk about getting five guys out into a concept, it just opens up more space inside typically.”
It wasn’t unusual for the Packers to throw to backs under Mike McCarthy, but a majority of the 125 passes Green Bay running backs caught over the past two seasons came off designed screens or check-downs underneath.
Getting running backs involved in the passing game through route combinations and motioning from the backfield has been a staple of the offenses LaFleur coordinated in both Tennessee and with the Los Angeles Rams.
During LaFleur’s year in LA, Todd Gurley went from catching 43 passes for 327 yards (7.6 yards per catch) in 2016 to leading the Rams’ top-ranked offense with 64 receptions for 788 yards (12.3 avg.) and six touchdowns.
Veteran Dion Lewis had 59 receptions in LaFleur’s Tennessee offense last year, which matched the catch totals from Lewis’ two previous seasons in New England combined.
The Packers appeared to place a heavier emphasis on route-running and pass-catching drills with their running backs throughout organized team activities and minicamp, an initiative with which the team’s returning running backs are on board.
“When you’re able to get a back who can catch or you can move out … personnel-wise, it can be a nightmare,” said fullback Danny Vitale, who caught 135 passes at Northwestern. “Scheme-wise, they’re going to run their schemes. But when you get personnel matchups that are favorable for you, that’s when you start doing some damage.”
Former fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams has been a reliable fixture in the Packers’ passing game throughout his first two NFL seasons. He’s proven himself to be a sturdy and alert pass protector, while also contributing as a pass catcher.
The 6-foot, 213-pound running back has hauled in 52 passes for 472 yards (9.1 avg.) with two touchdowns. While that aspect of the job is nothing new for Williams, LaFleur’s penchant for getting running backs in space is alluring.
Aaron Jones, who led the Packers with 728 rushing yards last year, believes LaFleur’s system will enhance his skills as both a runner out of the backfield and receiver in the passing game.
“It’s good for me because it finally shows I can get the ball in the open field,” said Jones, who’s averaged 5.5 yards per carry through his first two seasons. “I can run some routes, run some choice routes, be in the ‘1’ position, run some little slants. It really just shows that I can do more than just run the ball. I can catch it.”
Although he only has one touchdown catch on his NFL resume, Jones caught 71 passes for 646 yards with seven receiving TDs at UTEP. As a senior, his production in the passing game helped Jones eclipse 2,000 yards from scrimmage with 20 touchdowns.
Structural offensive changes and bringing receivers tighter to the hash marks is a dimension Jones hopes will lead to more big-play opportunities for himself and the rest of Green Bay’s running backs.
“Coach has stressed marrying the pass and the run game up,” Jones said. “You can’t get a bead on whether we’re going to pass the ball or run the ball. We have more condensed formations that we’re throwing the ball out of as well as running the ball. I definitely am excited.”
Fourth-year assistant coach Ben Sirmans has been the man responsible for seeing LaFleur’s vision through with the running backs.
After watching what LaFleur has previously accomplished in other NFL cities, Sirmans feels confident the new scheme will bring out the best in Jones, Williams and the rest of the Packers’ backfield. Whether they’re running or catching the ball, Green Bay’s running backs will have a big part to play in 2019.
“I think everything that we’ve done so far leads you to believe that it is an important factor within this scheme,” Sirmans said. “We’ve got a major job ahead of us as a backfield to make sure that we get it done.”