GREEN BAY — Joe Philbin knew he was stating the obvious.
“Yeah,” the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator said this week, when asked how he felt about having only two experienced-in-the-system running backs — Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery — ready for Sunday night’s season opener against the Chicago Bears. “You’d like to have more than that.”
Philbin certainly knows. He was in his first tour of duty as the team’s offensive coordinator in December 2011 when the then-undefeated 13-0 Packers went into a late-season game at Kansas City with only two healthy running backs: halfback Ryan Grant and fullback John Kuhn.
While other factors also contributed to their 19-14 loss that day at Arrowhead Stadium, coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged his play-calling got out of whack because of his backfield options. Grant (12 carries, 66 yards), Kuhn (two carries, zero yards) and wide receiver Randall Cobb (one carry, 4 yards) combined for 15 carries, quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back 42 times (35 pass attempts, three scrambles, four sacks). Later, McCarthy vowed he’d never go into a game with only two backs again.
The Packers are in this spot because second-year running back Aaron Jones is serving a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and because the team waived its four other halfbacks (LeShun Daniels, Joel Bouagnon, Bronson Hill and Devante Mays) and both their fullbacks (Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge) at the final roster reduction. (Mays was waived/injured.)
Technically, the Packers won’t face the Bears with only two backs. They signed Darius Jackson off the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad early in the week, though even with a crash course in the offense it’s unlikely Jackson will be up to speed in the Packers’ system. If they want, they could also promote Bouagnon, who was re-signed to the practice squad after being cut.
“It’s been intense,” Jackson said of learning a new offense via this week’s game plan with running backs coach Ben Sirmans. “It’s a lot — a new city, new team — but they’ve really embraced me well here. I love the guys, I love the feel. Definitely the playbook is the toughest part, but it’s really coming along. Whatever they ask me to do, I’ll be prepared.”
Williams and Montgomery figure to carry the load, with Williams having earned the starting job throughout camp and with an opportunity to stake his claim to the job permanently while Jones is suspended. Even if Williams doesn’t want to talk about it.
“These are the opportunities you want — to get more carries and more responsibility in the offense. Really, you take it for what it is and not take it for granted,” Williams said. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure the coaches know I’m going to keep producing at a consistent rate. The most important thing is the W. You still have your (personal) goals and everything, but really, I don’t put any extra pressure on myself. Just play the game I play.
McCarthy said Williams and Montgomery give the Packers a strong “1-2 punch” — as long one of them doesn’t get knocked out, that is.
“I think they can give us a great pairing. We’ve got two guys with two different styles,” Sirmans said. “Both guys have started in this league. Both guys have had 100-yard games in this league. Both guys can catch the ball out of the backfield. Obviously, you play to each guy’s strengths. So I think the biggest thing with that is, it doesn’t matter which guy is in. They both can be starters for us. I think it’ll be a rhythm thing. I feel like they’ll work off each other pretty well.”
Added Philbin: “They’re not one-dimensional players where all they can do is run the inside zone and pass protect or run the outside zone and run routes. These guys have the skill set where we can use them in a lot of different ways. That helps the fact that we’re going in with two right now that have been in the system for a long time.”