The Packers Need a Running Back Like Brandon Jackson

My Acme Packing Company colleague Paul Noonan pointed out this week that the primary objective of the Packers’ offense should be to equip and allow Aaron Rodgers to do the things that he does best.

Aaron Rodgers is a great passer, and passing is a more efficient way to produce points than running. Therefore, let Rodgers pass and give him the tools that allow him to do that to the best of his prodigious abilities.

Conventional wisdom indicates that a running game is a necessary complement to a passing attack, and I agree with that to a point. To a certain extent, the run does set up the pass, but maybe not in the way that color analysts and talking heads would have you believe.

The most important thing to remember about offensive balance isn’t numbers, it’s ability. An offense isn’t balanced because it calls five run plays and five pass plays on a ten play drive. A balanced offense would instead have the ability to effectively call either a run or a pass on any one of the ten plays of a ten play drive.

To achieve this goal, a team has to have the personnel to make it a reality. This is where the Packers’ running back situation comes into play.

What kind of running back do the Packers need?

We know a two important things about Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. We know that Rodgers favors an uptempo offense that allows him to get to the line quickly and hold the defense on the field, freezing them in a personnel grouping that he can analyze at a rate of his choosing. We also know that the Packers as a team prefer the shotgun formation to other sets; they ran 67.8% of their offensive plays from a shotgun formation in 2016.

These points are very important when it comes to addressing the Packers need at running back, because it tells us the kind of running back the Packers should be looking for.

To play in an offense that frequently goes up tempo, a player should be able to line up in a variety of positions that allow him to take advantage of a defense that’s probably stuck in a certain personnel grouping. And since the Packers tend to favor the shotgun formation, the running back needs to be able to run effectively from that set, pass protect (since it tends to be a passing formation), and catch passes (since shotgun formations, again, lead to passing).

Adrian Peterson has popped up repeatedly this week as a potential Packers target. Pederson is a bad fit for this sort of offense. He is bad at pass protecting, averages 3.7 yards per carry on shotgun runs, and has seen his yards per reception decline almost on a year-by-year basis throughout his career.

No, the Packers need a running back like Brandon Jackson.

Why a Jackson-style running back makes sense

You may remember Brandon Jackson, but if not, here’s a quick recap. Jackson was a second round pick by the Packers in 2007 and played in Green Bay for four years. He was the starting running back for most of the 2010 Super Bowl run, giving way to James Starks in the playoffs. He was underwhelming as a runner, but excelled in other important areas, which we’ll address below.

A Jackson-like running back for the Packers would be ideal for several reasons. First, although his overall rushing numbers are pedestrian, Jackson was excellent out of the shotgun, averaging 5.2 yards per carry during his time with the Packers. Only Ty Montgomery has matched Jackson’s numbers, putting up 6.4 yards per carry out of shotgun runs so far in his Packers career.

Second, Jackson was an extraordinary pass blocker. Back when Pro Football Focus actually gave out useful stats, they pointed out that Jackson was the best pass blocker in a group of Packers backs that only gave up pressures on 1.6% of passing downs. Even after he moved on to Cleveland, Jackson continued his excellent pass blocking. Though it wasn’t always a strength, Jackson worked diligently to become a better pass blocker and it paid off.

Finally, Jackson was an underrated receiver with the Packers. He caught 80% of the passes thrown his way in Green Bay, averaging better than eight yards per catch in three of his four seasons there.

If the Packers want to get the most out of their running back position, someone along the lines of the criminally forgotten Jackson could be the best solution. There may yet be a role on the team for a power runner in the mold of Eddie Lacy, but for the best return on investment, someone who complements Aaron Rodgers in all phases of the Packers’ offense would be the best move.