The history of running backs in Green Bay doesn’t bode well for the newest Packer hero.
“When you bring 33 back on the field like we did last week, you kind of forget the type of dynamic abilities he can bring to a game with his running style. He’s a different type of runner than we’ve had here in a while. You’ve gotta find ways to get him the ball.”
Said Aaron Rodgers, last September, about running back Aaron Jones. Throughout the disappointing 2018 season, Jones’ level of involvement was controversial, and despite his flashes of excellence, it never felt like he was given the keys to the featured-back car.
Last Sunday, he ran over America’s Team, scoring four touchdowns, and it felt like a long-awaited coming out party, marking the beginning of Jones’ status as *extremely Petey Jones voice* running back, the running back. Which is to say I expect Aaron Jones to be very good for about 16 more months and then disappear into the void.
Finding a main man to carry the ball has been a curious endeavor for the Packers, even in a league where the workhorse running back is no longer in vogue (with a few exceptions). While they have been unmatched in stability at quarterback, and have (almost) always employed at least one excellent pass-catcher, the running back position has been a hodge-podge of short-lived leading men, a revolving door of various talents never lasting more than a few seasons. Many teams have gone through running backs like Hogwarts goes through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, but this Sisyphean aspect of roster-building feels unique in some ways to Green Bay, given its particular cast of characters and the way the fanbase so readily makes those who succeed into folk heroes.
And so, enter Aaron Jones, and after his ascent to Fantasy Football God-status last week, I expect his jersey to be as popular as any Packer this season. As we look forward to the one or two good seasons he looks ready to deliver, let’s take a few moments to look back, season-by-season, on the fleeting champions who have gone before him.
It begins, of course, with the last true iron man, whose shoes have never been filled:
2000-2004: Ahman Green
What a legend. Green took over for Dorsey Levens in 2000 and was the undisputed number one for five seasons, with a gob-smacking 2003 campaign in which he totaled 1,883 yards and 15 touchdowns on over 5 yards per carry. In those five seasons, he led the entire NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. But, as is so often the case, the end of Green’s reign began with injuries, meaning that in 2005 the Packers had a new leading rusher. And his name was…
2005: Samkon Gado
With Green and Najeh Davenport injured, the little-known Liberty grad from Kufai, Nigeria, earned an unlikely opportunity and made the most of it. He was a feel-good story, drawing the love of the media through his humble and polite personality. And then he scored three touchdowns in his first start and Packer fans lost their minds. He was an instant household name who kept winning Rookie of the Week, until an MCL tear ended his season early. He failed to impress in the following preseason and was traded after Week 1 to the Texans. It was a fun, but short-lived story. In retrospect, it foreshadowed the new normal in Green Bay.
2006: Ahman Green
Green was the starter again after returning from injury. He had a decent season, but was clearly on the decline. He left for the Texans in free agency after the season ended.
2007-2009: Ryan Grant
The post-Green years began by committee, which included a former undrafted free agent named Ryan Grant. Grant steadily emerged as the leading man, until he planted his flag in an iconic game: the 2007 Divisional Playoff game versus Seattle. Grant was the story of that snowy day in Lambeau. After fumbling twice in the first quarter, he ran wild, totaling 201 yards and 3 touchdowns in a thrashing of the Seahawks. And so, clearly, Ryan Grant was Jim Taylor reincarnated and a clear successor to Green.
Not so. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2008, but on less than 4 yards per carry, and never seemed a real threat. Still, the Packers and the fans felt they had their man, and so Grant took the lead again in 2009, and had a more productive season. Sometime in this three year run, I saw Grant at a Green Bay Starbucks. This would have been pre-coffee drinking years, so I was probably waiting for a Strawberries and Creme drink my dad bought for me (those were damn good). Dad joked that Grant would be waiting for some fancy flavored drink with skim milk, and then, to our surprise, he did in fact pick up a skinny soy latte. Also in this same trip to Starbucks, we saw former Packer Frank Winters (or at least that’s who my dad said it was). Also during this time, the Packers re-signed Ahman Green as a backup, and while he could barely move around he managed to become the all-time leading rusher for the franchise.
Maybe Ryan Grant was for real, maybe not. He suffered an early ankle injury early in 2010 and would miss out on their Super Bowl-winning season. His time as the man was over.
2010: Brandon Jackson
The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, and a small footnote in that regular season is Brandon Jackson. In the Playoffs, Jackson, who never inspired a great deal of confidence, lost most of his carries to a rookie.
2011: James Starks
That rookie was James Starks. The Packers went 15-1 in 2011, and Packer fans were very, very annoying.
2012: John Kuhn
Just kidding! But the big bearded white guy is worth mentioning, as his popularity as a short-yardage “specialist” and special-teamer says something about who Packer fans tend to adore and something about the state of Packers running backs during this time. The real leading rusher in 2012 was A. Green, and for a second I thought that meant Ahman Green (and that says something about the positional carousel), but it’s Alex Green, who I forgot all about. He was the leading rusher on a depth chart including Starks, the returned-from-exile Grant, classically anonymous Packers running back DuJuan Harris, and the late Cedric Benson well past his prime. Yikes.
2013-2015: Eddie Lacy
The Packers splurged a second-round pick to get a blue-chipper to alleviate their running game struggles, and their great need was finally met by the nimble wrecking ball named Eddie Lacy. Lacy won Offensive Rookie of the Year and was the first Packer to rush for 1,000 yards since Grant. Not surprisingly, the rotund Lacy became a hero in Wisconsin, a land of pleasure and gluttony. However, after an excellent sophomore season, Lacy’s production tailed off due to injuries and to his struggles to keep himself in shape, which compounded the problem as these struggles became fodder for public ridicule. He was no longer the same player, and after an injury brought his 2016 season to an end, he was no longer a Packer.
2016: Ty Montgomery
“Now the reason you see the running back wearing number 88 is because Montgomery is actually a wide receiver who…” cue the groans from Packer fans hearing yet another broadcaster point out the obvious like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world.
The running back situation was so bad that the Packers had a receiver carrying the ball enough times to finish as the leading rusher (Rodgers was second, if my memory serves). Montgomery was legitimately good, which was the sort of unexpected answer that fits right into this history. So too does the rest of his time in Green Bay, but in a very different way: he ended the 2017 season on IR, and he ended the 2018 season on a different team after he basically committed treason in the final minutes of a crucial game versus the Rams. If any character in this saga proves that Ahman Green is actually Lord Voldemort and cursed the position after leaving, it’s Montgomery.
2017: Aaron Ripkowski
Just kidding again! But Packer fans were so sure they had the successor to John Kuhn that some may have even believed he was the best option as ball-carrier. Again, this says something about Packer fans and about the running back situation. Jamaal Williams, who is still with the team, was the real rushing leader (with a measly 556 yard total).
Which brings us to 2018, when Williams and Jones struck an uneasy balance, one of the many decisions from head coach Mike McCarthy which counted against him and led to his unceremonious (albeit overdue) dismissal at the end of the season.
After an awful head injury (sometimes I hate this sport), Williams has been sidelined with a concussion, leaving Aaron Jones as the undisputed main man in the Green Bay backfield. His ascent comes just as the Packers are starting to look convincing as a contender in the NFC. He’s poised to become one of the most popular players on a successful team, and after the dismal 2018 Packers season, anyone who leads the way this year is going to have a special place in the hearts of fans.
Maybe Jones will go on to have a great season – he looks to have the talent and the offense is improving. But we’ve seen this before, and it would fit right in with this story if Jones goes on to lead the league in rushing touchdowns only to fade into anonymity by next season. Such is life in the NFL, especially for running backs, and especially in the curious case in Green Bay. While Jones’ future is uncertain, one thing is sure: Packer fans will embrace him and hope for the best, undaunted by their recent history of short-lived running back relationships. He’s their guy.
Even if he isn’t a big white guy.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
~click the number to return to the text~
1 I would guess the defensive newcomers will also be popular, so look for Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander, and Adrian Amos jerseys. There are going to be a lot of middle-school boys asking for a Darnell Savage jersey for Christmas, and a lot of conservative parents hesitant to give their son a shirt that says “Savage,” especially just a few years after reluctantly giving him one that said “Clinton-Dix.”
2 So, there are probably some complicated racial dynamics involved in the story of Samkon. Not that embracing a young black man for being a humble and polite Christian is wrong, but it is telling when compared to the way white folks in Wisconsin regard other immigrants and other players who are black and aren’t humble and polite. But let’s also not forget that Samkon is a truly decent human being who is currently in school preparing to be a missionary doctor.
3 In my memory, this game was the same as the one in which Matt Hasselbeck tragically declared, “We want the ball and we’re gonna score,” but that happened a few years earlier. It’s been about 15 years of memorable encounters between the two teams, from Hasselbeck, to Grant, to the Fail Mary, to the onside-kick collapse. Seems like we’re due for another one.