Maybe not this early, as just one game into the 2010 season the Packers are being forced to move on without two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant. But as much as Grant’s teammates feel bad that his season is over practically before it started -- especially for a leader as dedicated and well-liked as Grant -- their outlook is that they can’t, and won’t, let it affect their preparation for this week’s game or their goals for the entire season.
“Ryan Grant is exactly the type of individual you want on your team and in your program, the way he goes about his business,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He is a hard-working, tough guy, no-nonsense, no-excuse individual, and he is a very good teammate. So the personal angle of Ryan’s injury is definitely difficult.
“But in the big picture, the professional side of it, you build your football team. We have 61 players here, 53 on the roster and eight on the practice squad, and we’re getting ready for Buffalo. That’s our mood, that’s our focus.”
In other words, the only option is to move on, so that’s what a team must do, and the sense of the approach from the locker room on Wednesday is that this team plans to do so collectively.
“He’s a hard runner for 16 games-plus. That’s difficult (to replace),” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I don’t think one guy can fill that role. I think it’s going to have to be a group effort from those running backs.”
The group effort starts with fourth-year pro Brandon Jackson, but also will include in some measure fullbacks John Kuhn and Korey Hall, and newcomer Dimitri Nance.
For Jackson, the former second-round draft pick has been waiting for three years for this opportunity to come around again. The team’s lead back for the first three games of his rookie season in 2007, Jackson missed time with a shin injury and then never got his old job back.
To his credit, he proceeded to dive head-first into the backup role on third downs, mastering pass-protection assignments and blitz pick-ups to the point he was praised almost as much for that last season as Grant was for his 1,253 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
But Jackson also spent this past offseason continuing to build his body for a more featured role, cutting junk food entirely out of his diet, doing more running and pushing his body “to the limits,” as he said, “learning how to stay healthy” in case he got this chance.
“Believe me, I have worked hard for this moment for three years, and I’m going to take care of it,” Jackson said. “Coaches always say, playing football, if you’re not the starter you’re always one play away. It took 2½-3 years for that to happen again, but I’m prepared. Three years of preparing to be the starter, I’m ready.”
What Jackson’s status as the lead back means for third downs isn’t entirely clear. He’s the group’s best receiver out of the backfield as well as its best pass protector – Rodgers praised his steady improvement year to year in the screen game and referred to him as “my guy” on protection calls – so if he can handle it, there may be many series he plays all three downs.
The other options are to have Kuhn spell him as a ballcarrier once in a while and/or have Kuhn or Hall potentially take on more third-down, pass-protection responsibilities. McCarthy expressed confidence in both players in the team’s one-back sets, while Rodgers considers Kuhn as knowledgeable of the offensive scheme as anyone in the huddle.
“I think for the most part I’ll probably take some more fullback plays with John taking more halfback snaps,” Hall said. “All the fullbacks now have to be aware of the possibility of going in on third down if somebody needs a breather or if somebody gets hurt, … being serviceable on third down.”
And then there’s Nance, just signed off of Atlanta’s practice squad. His role early on will have to be limited while he learns the offense, but the 5-foot-10, 219-pound rookie from Arizona State whose new teammates are already calling him “Quinn Jr.” (for his resemblance on a smaller scale to 6-foot-1, 263-pound fullback Quinn Johnson) will at some point get a chance to show what he can do as well.
“I feel like I’m right back to Day 1 in Atlanta, learning a whole new system,” said Nance, who considers himself a strong inside runner and capable receiver out of the backfield. “I’m trying to find the similarities in (the offenses), but it’s pretty difficult. It’s totally different. The coaches are helping me out, just giving it to me piece by piece, not throwing it all on me, and I’m learning it like that.”
As for the rest of the offensive players, they’re looking to improve on an offensive performance in the season opener that pretty much everyone, despite scoring 27 points, considered below their standards.
Rodgers was especially self-critical after Sunday’s game. He was a little more measured in his analysis after reviewing the entire film, which included four straight scoring drives, but he’s also aware that Grant’s absence could lead McCarthy to open up the offense a bit more, and his execution and accuracy will dictate how the offense evolves from here.
“It’s about improving each week,” Rodgers said. “Offensively we want to take some burden off the defense. If we can hold the ball longer and not put the defense in compromising situations with the turnovers we had, then I think we’re going to be able to play a more complete game as a team.”
For his part, Rodgers has a pretty good track record bouncing back from off days. Rodgers’ performance in Philadelphia (19-of-31, 188 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 73.1 rating) marked just the sixth time in 33 starts that he posted a quarterback rating below 80. But four of the previous five times he has come back the next game with a rating above 90, and twice it has been above 105.
The only time he’s posted back-to-back sub-80 ratings was in November 2008 in consecutive down-to-the-wire road losses at Tennessee and Minnesota. So his teammates have all the confidence in the world he will return to his high standards in a hurry.
“He’d better,” receiver Greg Jennings said, chuckling. “Of course, he’s the type of quarterback, he responds. I’m looking forward to the way he responds. It’s a matter of us making sure that we stay on top of our game and we respond right with him.
“It’s one game. We got the win. Let’s move on. Now give us the Aaron that you want to see and that’s probably what’s going to happen.”
Don’t mistake Jennings’ words for placing all the burden on Rodgers, however. Moving on from Week 1, without Grant, will be a team-wide task.
“I don’t think you can put it all on one person,” Jennings said. “Aaron has enough on his shoulders right now. But I think the ownership is going to be on all of us to step up and make plays.
“You have to be able to bounce back and overcome adverse situations. It’s going to happen to all 32 teams in the league. It’s all about how you overcome those situations, how you respond to those situations, that solidifies whether your team is going to be a good team or a great team.” Additional coverage – Sept. 15