INDIANAPOLIS – The number haunts, much like the phrase Fourth-and-26 once did. (And, still does.) There is no mistaking where it comes from, no need to decipher what it’s referring to, and it figures to remain in the Green Bay Packers’ collective consciousness for quite awhile.
Even Mike McCarthy uttered it Friday, as the Packers head coach stood at a podium at the annual NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium and recalled how the San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran largely untouched through the Green Bay defense in a 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff victory that wasn’t even that close.
In that game, Kaepernick ran for an NFL quarterback single-game record 181 yards, running back Frank Gore ran for another 119 and the Packers set a dubious franchise playoff record by giving up 579 total yards, the fourth-most yards allowed in a postseason game in NFL history.
“579,” McCarthy said, trying to be as emotionless as he could about it. “That’s a number that will stick in our focus as a defense throughout the offseason.”
Then, in the next breath, McCarthy revealed some of the things he intends to do about that number. In an effort to solve the mystery of the read-option, McCarthy said Friday that his defensive coaches will be heading to College Station, Texas this offseason to meet with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff to get some pointers in how to defend it. McCarthy also said “a couple college coaches” will come to Green Bay to help in the process.
The Packers defensive coaches, led by defensive coordinator Dom Capers, have also been studying the scheme since the season ended.
“Definitely there’s a lot of conversation about the read option – rightfully so,” McCarthy said.
Rightfully so – because of the Packers’ 2013 schedule. Among the Packers’ opponents, which were set when the season ended, are the Philadelphia Eagles, who’ll run a version of the read-option with new coach Chip Kelly, who ran it at the University of Oregon; the Washington Redskins, who use it with their ultra-dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin III; and the 49ers, in a rematch that will be played in San Francisco in what almost certainly will be a prime-time affair.
McCarthy said he knew Sumlin when he was working his way up as an assistant coach, and Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum also knows him. Slocum’s father, R.C., is the former Aggies head coach, and Shawn also served as an assistant at Texas A&M before going to the NFL.
Although the Aggies don’t run the read-option exclusively with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, it is part of their offensive package and they used it with success in Southeastern Conference games against Florida and LSU, among others.
“Just the fact what they’ve done (the read-option) on offense and (have) the ability to face it on defense all the time in the SEC, we thought this would be a great opportunity,” McCarthy explained later. “We’ve very thankful for him to bring our staff in.”
McCarthy said this is the first time he and his staff have leaned on college coaches for help with something, but it’s not the first time NFL coaches have sought NCAA help. Not only did Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Peas talk to some college coaches about stopping the read-option in advance of facing Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII, but New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has spent time with Kelly to pick his brain, too.
When asked about the particulars of the arrangement, McCarthy chuckled and replied, “I probably said enough. It’s secret stuff.”
What’s not a secret is how bad the Packers were at defending it – even the previous week against Minnesota fill-in quarterback Joe Webb and running back Adrian Peterson in an NFC Wild Card Playoff victory over the Vikings at Lambeau Field – and how much more of it they’ll likely see.
In fairness, it wasn’t just the read-option that doomed the Packers that night at Candlestick Park, as many of Kaepernick’s yards came on scrambles where he pulled the ball down, broke the pocket and didn’t have to worry about any would-be tacklers because the Packers were in man-to-man coverage and didn’t see him until he was in the open.
But Kaepernick’s 56-yard touchdown run, which snapped a 24-24 tie and was the beginning of the end for the Packers, came on a read-option play. After the game, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the 49ers wanted to use the read-option on roughly half of their snaps and that they’d expanded their use during the playoff bye week. The Packers, meanwhile, looked as if they hadn’t practiced it at all during the week leading up to the game.
“I don’t regret anything about the last season,” McCarthy said. “That’s really what this time of year is for. … It’s about getting better, it’s about improvement, and we need to do a better job stopping the read-option. That’s definitely something we’re focused on."
In the short-term, with the Eagles, Redskins and 49ers on the schedule, that focus is undoubtedly warranted. Whether or not the read-option scheme has staying power, though, is open for debate. The Ravens, for example, made it a clear priority to hit Kaepernick on every read-option play – even when he’d already given the ball to Gore or LaMichael James – during Super Bowl XLVII, and Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said Friday that he doesn’t think the scheme will revolutionize the NFL game.
“I think if you give defensive coordinators in this league a whole offseason to work on something, they’re going to stop it. They’re going to hit the quarterback to the point where they make sure he isn’t going to run. These coordinators are too smart not to find something to slow this thing down,” said Dorsey, a longtime Packers scout and administrator whose hiring in Kansas City was announced while Kaepernick was running wild in San Francisco that night.
Dorsey said he watched film of at least one game in which one of Nevada’s opponents shut Kaepernick and the Pistol offense down, and that the novelty will eventually wear off – even with dynamic quarterbacks like Griffin and Kaepernick. Dorsey scouted both players as the Packers’ director of college scouting, and he felt even before they reached the NFL that they had special skill sets.
“It’s a completely different component than what you’re used to seeing in the National Football League. Once you defensively are able to set your schemes for that, I think you can shut it down,” Dorsey said. “Those guys are unique animals. Robert Griffin, the guy is incredibly fast. He’s got a really good arm, he’s very accurate downfield. I’ve always found him a very intriguing prospect. And then with Colin Kaepernick, he’s demonstrated that size and speed and big arm go a long way, and he’s got all those intangibles.
“It’ll happen. Trust me. We’ve said, ‘How are we going to stop the West Coast Offense?’ And defenses know how to stop the West Coast Offense now. Give them an offseason and see what happens.”
As he did in his season-ending press conference, McCarthy referenced something he learned from longtime NFL coach Jimmy Raye, who told him back in 1993 when McCarthy was a young assistant, “Football is a cycle.” Right now, the Packers defense is trying to catch up to that cycle, and hoping to get some help from the college game.
“It’s very important to stay on the front side of that cycle,” McCarthy said. “The teams that do, like San Francisco had the success this year, they obviously benefit from it. You stay true to your preparation. Obviously we’ll spend a lot of time on the run-option defensively.”
But there is a limit to how much the Packers will do about that cycle.
“We won’t run it with our quarterback,” McCarthy said with a smile, “if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.