Geared to run
With Green, Levens, offense should thrive Tuesday, September 4, 2001
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

With Green, Levens, offense should thrive

of the Journal Sentinel staff

Green Bay - The offensive philosophy hasn't changed. There are no plans to take the ball out of Brett Favre's hands. Nobody has suggested anything will be different.

But if health does not play a significant factor in the performance of running backs Ahman Green and Dorsey Levens, the Green Bay Packers very well could be a different team this season.

Never in the nine years the Packers have been using the West Coast offense has the team had the potential to be so good running the football. For the first time in a while, the Packers have more playmakers behind Favre than they do on his flanks.

Green, 24, returns after a phenomenal first season as a starter, having gained 1,734 total yards from scrimmage (1,175 rushing and 559 receiving) in 2000. Levens, 31, is back after an injury-plagued season that limited him to 77 carries and just 16 receptions.

If the two of them are healthy and perform the way they have in the past, the Packers might have no choice but to keep feeding them the ball.

"If you have success, you'd be an idiot to turn away from somewhere where you're being successful just for the sake of trying," fullback William Henderson said. "Mike (Sherman) is the kind of coach who's going to put us in the best position to be successful with what will win.

"He's seen all the stats, how running offenses are more successful in the past as far as going all the way and executing and winning the big game. It's always been about a team being able to run the ball."

Indeed, running teams win Super Bowls.

However, the 1996 Packers were one of the exceptions. Their percentage of runs was lower than that of any of the last 10 Super Bowl champions with the exception of the pass-happy 1999 St. Louis Rams.

For years, the Packers have been successful passing the ball because they have Favre. And who could argue against giving it to the three-time most valuable player, who for nine consecutive seasons has thrown for at least 3,000 yards? But the two times Favre went to the Super Bowl, the Packers rushed for their highest (45.2) and third highest percentages (44.2) since he became the starter in 1992. The better the Packers have rushed the football, the better they have been.

And now they have a backfield worthy of a lot of carries. If Favre's receiving weapons prove to be as unreliable as last year, why not ride Green and Levens as far as you can?

"They're both very good receivers and very good runners," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "You are able to keep them fresh so if a back gets a long run, you're not dropping off. You can come back and run the back again because there's still an explosive back there. It's just a good feeling to have two backs like that."

Uncertainty remains
Rossley would not concede that the Packers would become a running team in 2000 in part because he doesn't know whether Levens can stay healthy all season. What's more, he isn't going to rein in Favre and take away the team's most dangerous weapon.

His thought is that if the Packers start running the ball like a championship team, opponents are going to make adjustments to make sure they don't. More and more teams play eight men at the line of scrimmage whether the opponent's running game is any good, just to make sure they don't give up a lot of yards on the ground.

If opponents begin to respect the Packers' running game a little more, however, it should open up some avenues for Favre.

"If they start to stop the run we'll react to that," Rossley said. "We can do either. We feel comfortable with our receivers and our passing game."

Another factor in whether the Packers can be more of a running team is the offensive line. At the end of last year, it started opening up more holes, allowing Green to gain 422 yards and average 4.3 yards per carry in a four-game stretch against division foes.

This year, tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are no longer rookies, center Mike Flanagan is more athletic than veteran Frank Winters and left guard Mike Wahle is a better run blocker than the departed Ross Verba. That should equate to a better running game.

"This is a very athletic group," offensive line coach Larry Beightol said. "They're big, strong, physical and quick. They're capable of doing anything we decide to do as a football team. Whether we're able to get it done, we'll see."

Stiff competition
Over the years, the Packers' offensive line has generally been more adept at pass-blocking than run-blocking, in part because they spend so much more time doing the former than the latter. They have often said that if given the chance, they could be a consistently good run-blocking unit.

Given the difficult fronts they'll face in the NFC Central this season, that might be easier said than done. Getting the job done against the Arizona Cardinals is one thing; getting it done against Tampa Bay is another.

"I think we think we could," Tauscher said of being a running team. "We have to go out and prove it. But that's what we want to hang our hat on."

Over the last two seasons, both years in which the Packers missed the playoffs, the run percentage has fallen below 40%. Considering that seven of the top 10 teams in rushing percentage made the playoffs last season, it's obvious that a solid running game makes a difference.

In previous years, former coach Mike Holmgren used to express a desire to be a balanced football team only to throw the ball as though there was no tomorrow. Sherman, a former offensive line coach, comes from a slightly different school of thought and might be more willing to stick with the running game.

"Holmgren was a passing coach," Henderson said. "That was never a question in my mind whether that was going to be a running offense or a passing offense. It was always going to be passing, if possible. Mike (Sherman) kind of sees it as the opportunity being there for a running offense to go out there and take over."

He'll just have to hope both backs stay healthy.

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