The Lasting Effect of the "Fail Mary" Game
by Mike Conklin
August 11, 2013
The "Fail Mary" game in Seattle will not be soon forgotten for fans not only in Green Bay but across the NFL landscape. It will go down as one of the most convoluted endings of a game in NFL history.
But is it possible that when history looks back at the lasting effect of that evening, the final play may not turn out to be the most pivotal outcome of the game?
In the first half of that contest, the Green Bay offense was completely dominated by Seattle. The Packers lined up in the shotgun on most of their offensive plays, and tried to pass the ball repeatedly without success. With no threat of the run, the front four of the Seahawks were able to tee off on the quarterback. Aaron Rodgers was sacked a career-high eight times in the first half alone, and the Packers were held scoreless in the first thirty minutes of that game.
The Packers barely tried to run the ball in the first half. They were credited with four carries as a team, but only two of those carries were on traditional run plays. One was a scramble by Aaron Rodgers, while Randall Cobb was credited with the other carry.
In the second half, Mike McCarthy's game plan changed dramatically.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, McCarthy gave the ball to Cedric Benson no fewer than seven times. The Packers methodically moved down the field and scored their first points of the game. After only running the ball two times in the first half, Benson would finish the night with 17 carries.
As a result of that tactical shift the Packers offense was able to offer a more balanced attack in the second half, and would have won the game if not for the infamous call on the game's final play.
In retrospect, it appears that something may have shifted at halftime of that game. McCarthy's increased attention to the running game seemed to begin at that point, and it was the start of a reversal of a trend that had continued for more than a year.
In 2011, the Packers offense was one of the most prolific in NFL history. They passed the ball at will, and by many accounts Aaron Rodgers had the best season that any quarterback has ever had. The Packers offense was so potent that in many respects they did not even need to bother to run the ball. And they didn't much.
The Packers averaged fewer than 25 rushing attempts per game that season, but many of those were quarterback scrambles or gimmick plays. When counting only rushing attempts by running backs, the Packers averaged less than 20 carries per game in 2011.
Despite such a lack of investment in the running game, the Packers offense was a juggernaut that year. And it appeared that the team began the 2012 season with the same approach.
The aforementioned game in Seattle was in the third week of the season. In the first two games, the Packers only handed the ball off to running backs a total 33 times.
Factoring in the first half against the Seahawks, through the first two-and-a-half games in 2012 the Packers running backs were on pace for only 14 carries per game.
At the same time, Aaron Rodgers was facing pressure like never before. In those same first two-and-a-half games of 2012, Rodgers was sacked 16 times.
To put that in another perspective, consider this fact: The Packers were the worst in the league at protecting the quarterback last season, allowing 51 sacks. Nearly a third of the sacks allowed during the entire season were given up in the first two-and-a-half games.
The Packers changed their approach significantly at halftime of that game in Seattle, and that approach continued throughout the season.
From that point forward, Packers running backs averaged more than 24 carries per game.
By the time the 2012 season ended, rushing attempts by running backs had increased an eye-popping 14.8% over 2011.
Despite McCarthy's increased emphasis on the run, the Packers did not produce great results on the ground. Their running backs only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Even so, McCarthy was not deterred in his efforts to run the ball down the stretch of the season. DuJuan Harris was promoted from the practice squad in an effort to improve the running game, and the Packers also benched veteran center Jeff Saturday in favor of a better run-blocker in Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Throughout the offseason, McCarthy spoke openly about how the Packers were going to improve the run game. General Manager Ted Thompson was apparently on board as well, evidenced by the fact that two running backs were selected in the first four rounds of the draft in April. And although it is difficult to draw any real conclusions from play calling in the preseason, of the Packers 25 first quarter offensive snaps in their exhibition opener, 15 of them were running plays. The focus is there.
"It's a starting point and like anything, you have to get the attempts," McCarthy said of the performance of the running game during the preseason opener.
"We’ll continue to work all of our backs and our run-blocking unit will get better."
When McCarthy creates a point of emphasis, the team typically improves in that area. If the Packers indeed run the ball more this season and are able to do so effectively, the Packers would theoretically be able to incorporate the play-action passing game with greater success. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm and defenses on their heels, the sky would be the limit for the Packers offense in that scenario.
If that were to happen, perhaps the success the Packers offense going forward could at least in part be traced back to halftime of that Monday night game in Seattle.
Photo Credit: Rick Tapia/NFL