GREEN BAY — It's got to be killing him.
It's got to be making Mike McCarthy cringe every time he calls a running play.
It's got to be eating away at the coach of the Green Bay Packers to stick with an unproductive running game when he has the NFL's most valuable player at quarterback.
Yet, McCarthy, despite his pass-first orientation, keeps dialing up running plays even though the Packers backs have been running into a brick wall ever since Cedric Benson went down with a foot injury in the fifth game. Halfback Alex Green has gained 51.3 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry since he entered the lineup, but he still has carried the ball at least 20 times in each of his three starts.
That has caused McCarthy's suggestion box to fill up quickly. Try Super Bowl hero James Starks, healthy again after being injured for much of the last two seasons. Acquire a proven veteran before today's trade deadline. Ditch the zone-blocking scheme.
Everyone knows the Packers need to run the ball better, they just can't agree on a solution. Here's mine: Other than putting in more work on the running game in practice, McCarthy should keep doing exactly what he's been doing.
Assuming Benson is on pace for a December return, there is no need to abandon the struggling Green or to bring in another running back. McCarthy should continue his show of self-control by sticking with his running game — however ineffective it is — enough to keep defenses honest. You see, the only thing worse than a lousy running game is no running game at all.
McCarthy has forgotten about the run several times this season, most notably in the first half against Seattle and the second half against Indianapolis. Not coincidentally, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked 12 times in those two halves.
"I think there's definitely value in running the football because everything you do is off of the run game as far as the action-passing game," McCarthy said. "The way we do it is when you throw the football, there's two ways of throwing it: You drop back and throw it or you have some form of action that fits some segment of your run game. As long as those are tied together and they look the same, there's definitely some benefit."
That's not to say the Packers don't need to get better running the ball, only that, with victories in their past three games, there is no reason to take drastic action. They've never have been a great running team under McCarthy, but the preponderance of 1 and 2-yard runs has forced them into too many unfavorable down-and-distance situations. If those were 3 and 4-yard runs, this wouldn't be an issue.
"It would take some of the pressure off of the passing game if we could have a little more balance there in the run game and just be a little more effective, put us in better down-and-distances there on second and third downs," Rodgers said. "Hopefully (that would) make the defense have to get out of their 2-shell defenses. Now some defenses will come in and play what they want to play, but you've seen a couple times teams that just sat back in cover-2 and have been able to stop us (running the ball) with their front four, six and seven. So we have to do a better job of running the ball when we get those clean looks."
Heavy criticism has fallen on Green, a second-year player coming off knee surgery, but there is more than enough blame to go around. Green needs to finish runs better, and so do his blockers.
"We've all got to be better at it," guard Josh Sitton said. "There's been times when there's been holes there and we're not hitting them. There's times where we're just not creating enough space. It's a group effort. ... We all have to be more consistent."
Green acknowledged he needs to make quicker reads and get to the hole faster, but said he's been hesitant because he's trying to give his teammates time set up their blocks. When he was at Hawaii, Green never had a fullback in front of him and therefore could hit the hole as fast as he wanted. That makes it reasonable to expect some improvement from Green, especially if McCarthy sticks to plays more compatible with his running style.
Meanwhile, Starks isn't reliable enough to be an every-down back, there is no way the Packers are going to alter their blocking scheme at this late date and there is no real reason to spend a draft pick and take a salary-cap hit just to bring in a veteran runner. Any back who is acquired wouldn't arrive in time to play in Sunday's game against Arizona, and, with the bye week up next, the Packers would only need him for two or three more games before Benson returns.
That doesn't make much sense. So unless McCarthy knows something about Benson that we don't, he is better off to simply ride out the storm. And keep running the ball 20 times a game.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.