Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer
GREEN BAY, Wis. — If you watched the New Orleans Saints last season — and looked specifically at how Sean Payton employed his running backs — then you have an idea how an NFL team can successfully incorporate two dynamic players at a position that typically features only one of them on the field at a time.
And how they can do it without taking the ball out of the hands of their Hall of Fame quarterback to boot.
You also might have seen a way the Green Bay Packers can meld their three potentially productive backs — Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones — into something similar even with the return of Aaron Rodgers from the broken collarbone that ruined last season.
The NFL always has been a copycat league, so don’t be surprised if coach Mike McCarthy takes a page out of Payton’s playbook. The Saints coach fielded the NFL’s fifth-best rushing attack last season in large part because he blended veteran running back Mark Ingram with Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara. It wasn’t just your standard starter and third-down/change-of-pace combination; the two were essentially interchangeable, which kept defenses honest no matter which one lined up behind Drew Brees.
McCarthy certainly wasn’t going to tip his hand when asked last week if he studied how the Saints used their backs and if it could be applicable to his offense.
“The fact of the matter is we’re going to go running back by committee,” he said during an interview at the conclusion of the offseason program. “But if one of them would emerge as that full-time guy then you have to have that ability to … adjust to that. As far as planning and going into the season, that’s why we’re going about it that way. We feel like we’ve got three guys that have all done it, but they haven’t done it over a long period of time, so I think it’s just practical thinking from that position and realizing that it’s a very demanding position.”
Ingram ranked fourth in the NFL in both rushing yards (1,124) and rushing average (4.9). Kamara ranked 26th (728) and first (6.1), respectively. Kamara led all backs in receiving yards (826) and ranked second in catches (81). Ingram ranked 13th (416) and eighth (58), respectively.
That’s where Montgomery, Williams and Jones come in for the Packers. While none has done it for a full season — all three battled injuries at different points last season, something McCarthy has been rightly reminding everyone of since early in the offseason — they’ve all shown the ability to stay on the field for all three downs. All three can carry the ball, catch the ball and pass block, but the third skill might be the most shaky for each one.
By now, all three have become familiar: Montgomery, the converted receiver who provides matchup advantages; Williams, last year’s fourth-round pick who led the team in rushing; Jones, the small but explosive fifth-rounder who averaged 5.5 yards a carry and had perhaps the highlight run of the season with the 20-yard game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Buccaneers.
“We’ve got young players that we really like that all played really well, but it’s been in short periods of time,” McCarthy said. “Ty Montgomery had a run there where he was outstanding. Jamaal has probably been the most available of the three, and Aaron has been so impactful when he’s been in there. I just think like anything, you project and you set a path.”
For his part, the 5-foot-9 Jones set out to bulk up this season in an effort to become more durable. He sustained a pair of MCL injuries — one to each knee — that derailed what could have been a special rookie season.
“I’m bigger all around,” Jones said this offseason. “That’s something that’s going to help me in pass protection and that’s something I want to get better at. I’m stronger, so definitely when a defender who’s bigger than me comes up I can hold my ground this year. I feel like any athlete wants to get bigger, stronger as long as they can stay explosive. I still feel just as explosive as I was if not even more.”
Perhaps the best thing about the Packers’ running back combination is they’re a year older and wiser. Given that it was Montgomery’s first full year as a running back, position coach Ben Sirmans essentially worked with three rookies last season.
“I think the thing is it gives you more confidence when you have a play design that they’re going to operate and do it correctly and not as concerned or worried about it as you were when they were rookies,” Sirmans said. “Are we putting too much on their plate? I think more than anything, it will allow us to expand the menu of what we’re doing.”
Whether it’s the Saints’ approach or some other form of running back by committee, it has become clear that McCarthy doesn’t plan to rely on one back and one back alone.
“You’ve got to be honest about that position; there’s not too many guys that can play 19 games,” McCarthy said. “To be the workhorse and do it week in and week out for 19 games, you’re a unique player. Your availability is at the top of the line because that’s such a demanding position. I can remember back in the 1990s seeing Marcus Allen in the cold tub after seeing him carry 25 times in a game. It took him probably until Wednesday or Thursday to recover. You always remember the first time you see what these guys go through at that position. And I think it’s no different for us because you do have to make a determination based on your players.”