Over at the JS Online Packer Blog, Greg Bedard dips into the mailbag for some questions from fans. As always, it’s worth reading the entire thing. But I was particularly struck by this comment about the Packer running game from a “Matt in DC.”
He writes: “We are two years into this zone blocking BS and I would hope you guys / gals out there would get in MM and TT’s grill about how ridiculous it is for a line not to grasp this in TWO YEARS! Perhaps it’s because our tackles aren’t cut out for it. They aren’t fleet afoot. Or, perhaps the line is dumber than a bag o’ hammers…As many flaws as he had, at least Mike Sherman had the good sense to know you run north – south and he did damn good with that power running scheme.”
I think Mike Sherman sucked and I like the zone-blocking scheme, so I come to his argument as a skeptic. But facts are stubborn things, as they say. So I did a quick rundown on the numbers. Was Mike Sherman’s running scheme “damn good” and is it time to abandon the zone-blocking scheme favored by Mike McCarthy?
Sherman was coach from 2000-2005, McCarthy in 2006/07. Here are the statistics, with the year, total team rushing yards and, in parentheses, the total of the leading rusher:
MIKE SHERMAN ERA
MIKE MCCARTHY ERA
Two things jump out at me. First, the number from the first two years implementing Sherman’s scheme are roughly the same as the numbers from McCarthy’s two years. (In 2000, Ahman Green was in his third year, the first with the Packers. In 2006, he did not play two games and was less effective than might have been expected in others because he was injured.)
Second, the numbers from 2007 include only 10 games in which Ryan Grant was the starter. If we throw out the final game of the season against Detroit because Grant was benched early (he had 6 rushes for 57 yards when he left), Grant averaged almost exactly 100 yards per game. For an entire season, that’s 1600 yards for Grant alone. When you look at the contributions from the non-starting RBs over the past seven years, they routinely account for somewhere between 300 and 800 yards (more in the years a starting RB is hurt, of course). If we stay on the conservative side of those numbers and figure for 2007 that the other RBs — chiefly Vernand Morency and Brandon Jackson — might have provided 350 yards of production with a healthy Ryan Grant, then this year’s Packers are actually ahead of every Mike Sherman coached team other than 2003, when Ahman Green was the league’s second-leading rusher to Jamal Lewis (who finished with 2066 yards that year).
There are lots of “ifs” here, of course, including Grant’s ability to stay healthy and to keep up his impressive numbers for an entire year. That cuts both ways, though, and it’s possible to argue that Grant’s per game average would have likely increased the more comfortable he got with the scheme. What’s more, Grant was used a lot less than Ahman Green even in the games he started. In five of the nine games we’re including in this analysis, Grant rushed fewer than 20 times. Had McCarthy run the ball the way he says he wants to and had he left Grant in at the end of games the Packers were winning decisively, Grant’s numbers might have been much higher.
The bottom line: Using relatively conservative projections, the Packers running game this year would have likely been as productive as any year under Mike Sherman except for the dominant 2003 year.
All of that said, I agree with Bedard: “What really boggled my mind all season was how McCarthy, Joe Philbin and James Campen continued to talk about fundamentals being the crux of the problem – and they even said that after the loss to the Giants. Here we are now two years into this system and fundamentals are still a problem? How is that possible? Either it’s not being taught correctly or there’s a big problem on the receiving end.”
The numbers over the second half of the season were impressive. We heard on every broadcast that Ryan Grant was second only to Ladanian Tomlinson in his production over the games he started. That’s a big deal. But it is disconcerting, to say the least, that the coaches are still talking about fundamentals.