Every time you turn on an NFL pregame show, there is an analyst yelling through your television screen about the importance of running the football. The rhetoric includes phrases like, “You can’t win without a running game!” Or “When the weather turns bad, you have to run the football!”
The Packers running game has been a topic of much conversation this season. Constant questions about the Packers trading for a running back may have even forced Greg Bedard to leave the Packers beat for a job in Boston.
When Ryan Grant was placed on injured reserve after week one, most fans did not give up on the season, but many wanted Ted Thompson to trade for another running back. After all, you cannot win without a running game, right? Fans clamored for Marshawn Lynch or DeAngelo Williams. Some even thought Marion Barber could be the savior. Throughout all the commotion, Brandon Jackson received no love.
I do not wish to rekindle the argument about whether Thompson should have traded for a running back, or whether teams truly do need a running game to be considered championship caliber. Instead, I want to examine the Packers recent history in the running game, particularly in the second half of the season, and examine how Jackson’s role in the offense might expand based on that recent history.
In 2007, Grant rushed for 929 yards over the season’s final eight games (he also had 201 yards in a playoff win over the Seahawks). In 2008, he gained 550 yards in the first eight games and ran for 653 in the final eight. Last season, Grant gained 589 yards in the season’s first half and 728 in the second.
In 2009, Grant’s workload increased in the second half as well (128 carries in the first half, 154 in the second). Grant’s carries were about equal in the first and second half of 2008.
Reasons for Grant’s improvement as the calendar switches to November, December and January likely include the quality of opponent, game situation and playcalling. But whatever the reason may be, it is a fact that Grant became a more productive runner as each season wore on.
It is a much smaller sample size because Jackson did not get the carries that Grant did, but Jackson also has better numbers late in the season. In 2007, Jackson gained 135 total yards in week 17 against the Lions. In 2008, two of his top three rushing games came in week 11 and 13. Last season, Jackson battled injuries early and was invisible once he returned (best game: six catches for 66 yards against the 49ers in week 11).
Jackson probably never will be an upper-echelon running back, but he has shown the ability to at least be a quality starter. The problem is, Jackson has not been given that much of an opportunity to prove it. Since carrying the ball 18 times against the Eagles, Jackson has not gotten more than 15 carries since. He is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and has at least one catch in every game.
Those numbers are respectable, but this factoid made me raise my eyebrows: Football Outsiders has Jackson ranked 28th in DYAR, ahead of Chris Johnson, Cedric Benson, Matt Forte, Lynch, Williams and Barber.
So does that mean that Jackson is a better running back than Johnson? No. But it does mean that Jackson is more than capable of being a valuable contributor to the Packers offense down the stretch.
Personally, I do not believe that a team hasto run the ball to win, regardless of the weather or what Mike Ditka tells you at 10:15 a.m. every Sunday. I believe you use the run to set up the pass and milk the clock if you have a lead in the second half. Jackson is more than capable of doing this.
But could Jackson be capable of even more? Right now, we don’t know because he is not getting enough carries (for some reason, Mike McCarthy insists on running toss sweeps with John Kuhn instead of Jackson).
Recent Packers’ history suggests that the running game will improve in the second half of the season. Jackson has the talent to continue that recent tradition if given the opportunity. With Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, Josh Sitton playing at a pro bowl level and Chad Clifton rising from the dead, Jackson should be a key cog to the Packers offense as they make a push toward the playoffs.