Why Ty Montgomery Can't Be the Third Running Back

I think Ferris Bueller says it best.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

Life in the NFL has moved fast for Packers running back Ty Montgomery. Originally drafted by Green Bay in the third round, he initially drew comparisons to receiver Randall Cobb for his ability to return kicks and catch the ball from the slot. Injuries to both himself and others on the roster forced him to transition to running back, where he excelled in 2016.

Then the 2017 season started, and Montgomery entered the regular season as the team’s starting running back and a budding star. Things didn’t go how Montgomery had hoped, and rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones wound up setting the pace for Green Bay at running back.

Just where does Ty Montgomery fit in now?

A healthy Montgomery in 2018 is another arrow in the quiver of head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. The success of Williams and Jones likely limits the number of carries that Montgomery could see this season, forcing the Packers to be creative to get him the ball.

It’s more important to those outside of Lambeau Field than those inside what position Montgomery officially plays. Just as we saw last season, even though he may be labeled as a running back, it doesn’t stop McCarthy from lining number 88 up as a receiver.

The philosophy of any good offense at its core is to get the best collection of eleven players on the field to execute the called play. Because you’re going to have five offensive lineman out there along with Aaron Rodgers, that leaves coaches with five players to use at their whim.

The list of Montgomery’s best qualities reads like a blueprint for a great offensive weapon. While the focus has been on his abilities running the ball, he’s been apt to make a number of smart plays on the receiving end, too.

McCarthy and Philbin likely won’t tip their hat much on what they plan to do with Montgomery, but one area where supporters of the fourth-year utility player will want to avoid is the role of third-string running back.

It’s not a good idea to be the Packers’ third-string running back

Throughout the tenure of Mike McCarthy leading the Packers’ offense, running backs have been expected to do three things:

  1. Help the offensive line block on passing plays
  2. Reliably catch passes out of the backfield
  3. Create mismatches with a variety of skills

The other truth about running backs? You don’t want to be the third running back on the roster.

Green Bay has ran 10,682 offensive plays under McCarthy’s watch. About three of every five plays are through the air, and two are on the ground. Because the Packers pass more than they run, the carries on the ground are more valuable to the running backs.

Having such a drastic split between passing and running the ball isn’t a bad thing, however. Jon wrote about this last offseason:

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.

I examined each Packers season under McCarthy and collected the stats of each team’s third-leading rusher by carries (excluding quarterbacks). The result is a who’s who of vaguely familiar names:

  • 2017: Ty Montgomery
  • 2016: James Starks
  • 2015: Randall Cobb
  • 2014: John Kuhn
  • 2013: Johnathan Franklin
  • 2012: James Starks
  • 2011: John Kuhn
  • 2010: Dimitri Nance
  • 2009: Brandon Jackson
  • 2008: Deshawn Wynn
  • 2007: Deshawn Wynn

Next, I combined each player’s individual statistics and averaged the data out over the total number of games played. Here’s what the Third Running Back averaged in a typical game:

3 attempts, 11 yards, 3.3 yards per carry
2 targets, 1 reception, 13 yards

All told, the Third Running Back:

  • Make up 13 percent of the team’s total rushing attempts. Last season, Montgomery ran for 37 percent of the Packers’ total rushing attempts, the most by a Third Running Back under McCarthy. However, Montgomery’s role in 2018 was as a starter and wound up as the Third Running Back because of injury.
  • Run for just 7 percent of the team’s total rushing yards. Players like Dimitri Nance, Deshawn Wynn and Johnathan Franklin all took turns as the team’s Third Running Back as the Packers tried to develop them. Often, these backs get their attempts late in games after the result has been decided and when the defense is expecting a running play.
  • Didn’t make much of an impact in the passing game. With the exception of Randall Cobb in 2015, these Third Running Backs were afterthoughts as receiving threats. Cobb, whose regular position is a wide receiver, played a significant amount of snaps as a running back that season thanks to injuries in the backfield.

If Montgomery’s role in 2018 is that of the Third Running Back, it’s a role beneath his skills. The Packers would be wise to stretch their playbook to find ways to get Montgomery on the field in a variety of positions and formations.