Before we start digging into what Eddie Lacy means to football in 2017, consider this highlight from the 2013 BCS National Championship a palette cleanser:
As a junior at Alabama, Lacy rushed for 1,322 yards on 204 carries and scored 17 touchdowns. He may not have been viewed as the dominant, one-person rushing attack that his predecessors Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, but consider this:
In 2009, when he won the Heisman, Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards, 17 touchdowns, and had a 6.1 YPC average. He also caught 32 passes with another three touchdowns.
In 2011, when he finished third in the Heisman, Richardson rushed for 1,679 yards, 21 touchdowns, caught 29 passes with three touchdowns, and averaged 5.9 YPC.
In 2012, Lacy had those numbers above, but averaged 6.5 YPC and caught 22 passes with another two touchdowns. He split time with T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns that same year, and neither was in the Heisman conversation. (Johnny Manziel won the Heisman that year, and no Alabama player, including A.J. McCarron, who had 30 TDs and three INTs, was in the top 10. Manti Te’o finished second and Collin Klein was third.)
In their only loss that season, the Crimson Tide gave up two rushing scores to none other than Christine Michael, as Texas A&M won 29-24 behind Michael, Manziel, and Ryan Swope. But in the category of last laughs (and laughs at some of the worst teams to be ranked number one going into the final game), Alabama beat Notre Dame 42-14. Lacy carried it 20 times for 140 yards and one touchdown, and caught another touchdown, the one you see above with his patented* spin move.
*not patented -- though Lacy will tell you differently.
“He swears up and down that he invented the spin move,” says former college teammate and Seattle Seahawks receiver Kevin Norwood.
Lacy used those moves to skip his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL Draft. He was not considered the “Can’t-miss” prospect that Richardson was when he went third overall prior to going “missing” or even the late-first rounder that Ingram was before that. Instead, Lacy was seen as slower and less dynamic than the previous two lead backs in Alabama and expected to go late second, early third. His NFL.com comparison was Frank Gore.
At his pro day, Lacy ran about a 4.6, had a 32.5” vertical, and a 4.44 short shuttle. His numbers were not overly impressive, but for some scouts they didn’t have to be because Lacy’s best attribute wasn’t his speed — it was his ability to break tackles, move piles, spin moves, and always make the first guy miss. In many regards, can’t really be compared to a young Marshawn Lynch, he’s not of that level, but in some other very important regards, the things he does well are the same things Lynch does well.
On the negative side about his times though were the early warning signs that he lacked motivation and a commitment to health. "Scout and coaches left with questions about Lacy's work ethic and preparation habits," said Bucky Brooks at the time. There was also the question of how much he was challenged while playing behind the best offensive line in college football:
“How good was the offensive line he had? Lacy averaged 4.2 yards per rush before first contact, and he made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched on 35.8% of his rushes. Up the middle was his specialty, 64.7% of his rushes came between the tackles. Lacy averaged 7.6 yards per carry on such running plays with about one in every four attempts going for at least 10 yards.”
Despite being arguably the best offensive player on one of Nick Saban’s greatest teams, Lacy was not seen as big of a loss as cornerback Dee Milliner or tackle D.J. Fluker. But a lot of that had to do with the fact that the Crimson had already replaced great running backs before and had Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, and Derrick Henry waiting in the wings.
“There's two ways to look at it,” Saban said. “You can come back and say, 'I'm going to prove that I can be durable by having a great season and playing 12-13-14 games without ever having an issue or problem and that may enhance my draft status.'
“Or you can say, 'I have certainly had durability issues to some degree but I've also been a very, very, very productive player in my career here and I only have so many years I can play. So maybe at my position, where durability is such a factor, it might be more beneficial for me being a really solid high draft pick to go ahead and do what I'm doing.’”
Lacy himself was excited about the opportunity to split carries:
“That's one of the best ways as a running back to handle that position,” Lacy said. “It helps you as far as recovery and lasting long during the season because you don't take as many hits.
“Splitting carries is much better than being one back and taking all of those hits week in and week out.”
In the 2013 draft, Lacy was in contention to be the top running back off of the board in a class where no backs were expected to go in the first round. That turned out to be true, but the first back off the board was not Lacy, but Giovani Bernard, 37th overall to the Bengals. Next was Le’Veon Bell, 48th to the Steelers. Then came Montee Ball, 58th to the Broncos. And then it was Lacy, 61st to the Packers, and Michael went next off the board, to the Seahawks.
Still, the headlines in Wisconsin included headlines that called Lacy a “reluctant” choice by GM Ted Thompson, mainly due to his durability concerns:
Brian Gutekunst, the Packers' first-year director of college scouting, immediately was asked about Lacy's durability issues and expressed not a trace of anxiety. "He's a big back and really hasn't missed any time," Gutekunst said. "He's played through whatever he's had so I don't think it's going to be a concern."
Pittsburgh was reportedly very interested in Lacy, but took him off of the board because of an ongoing toe injury — it’s what “forced” them to draft Bell, now the best all-around running back in the NFL.
And still, the 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year was not Bell, Bernard, or DeAndre Hopkines (2013 was such an awful, awful draft though) — it was Lacy. Funny enough though, the “Fat Eddie Lacy” jokes did not start in 2015 ... they started before his rookie season:
Wait... did Eddie Lacy EAT Johnathan Franklin? Look at the difference btwn these photos. Just an unflattering angle? pic.twitter.com/AvJDICHT6J— David P. Woods (@davidpwoods) July 29, 2013
"Eddie Lacy definitely falls in the category of a 'big back,' and big backs fall forward," said head coach Mike McCarthy at the time. "That's definitely the benefit of big backs. It's definitely a preference, particularly in that (red zone) area."
As the preseason got under way however, Eddie Lacy was “all the rage” again. He rushed eight times for 40 yards against the Rams. “I’ve not seen a running back like that in Green Bay since Ahman Green,” said one exec. Adrian Peterson called Lacy “a really good pickup” that “I didn’t like” because he was now on a division rival.
Brooks came back after the preseason to talk about how Lacy would transform the Packers offense:
In Lacy, the Packers have a big, physical runner with a rough-and-rugged game. Checking in at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, he is a punishing inside runner adept at running through contact in the hole. He frequently blew through defenders on inside runs throughout the preseason, continuing a trend that saw him average 7.6 yards per attempt on inside runs during his final season at Alabama. Additionally, Lacy runs effectively from one- and two-back formations, which makes it possible to keep him on the field in various packages, including "11" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and "12" (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) personnel groupings. This is an important development for the Packers' offense, because it allows head coach Mike McCarthy to feature a power-based running game from the same spread formations Rodgers uses to pick apart opponents with pinpoint passes.
He added that Lacy’s presence would “re-introduce the long ball” and “make Aaron Rodgers a more efficient passer.”
The threat of defending a big-time running back forces linebackers and defensive backs to play honest at the point of attack, which makes play action more effective in the passing game. Factor in more defenders near the line of scrimmage as part of a loaded box (eight-man front), and Rodgers should have bigger passing windows to target, particularly on early downs.
Studying the Packers' offense throughout the preseason, I've seen more play-action passes with complementary routes over the middle of the field. These routes are specifically designed to take advantage of overaggressive linebackers reacting quickly to the threat of Lacy receiving an inside handoff.
In his first NFL game, Lacy rushed for 41 yards and a touchdown, with a 31-yard reception, in a 34-28 loss to the 49ers. (Remember when they were good?) He also had a crucial second quarter fumble on his own 10-yard line that led to an easy Colin Kaepernick touchdown pass. The next week brought back injury concerns, as Lacy had just one carry before suffering a concussion and James Starks led the way with 132 rushing yards in a 38-20 victory over Washington. Lacy missed a Week 3 loss to the Bengals.
He returned following a bye week to rush for 99 yards in a win over the Lions, then 120 yards in a close win over the Ravens that Lacy helped close out with some late-game runs. His weight wasn’t a joke, it was a weapon. Teammate defensive end Mike Daniels thought the Lacy “fat” picture was more than a player being lazy:
Right away, Daniels insisted the guys who have to tackle Lacy were shuddering, not snickering.
Inside the visitor's locker room after Green Bay's 19-17 win Sunday, the Packers' defensive end leaned his head back in satisfaction.
"This is exactly what I was talking about," Daniels said. "It is exactly what I was talking about. There'll be a point where people dive out of his way and I can't wait for that day to come. I really can't."
It was even an early opportunity for “Maybe Tom Cable will play him at tackle” jokes:
"He's a big, strong kid," Daniels said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually puts his hand in the dirt and plays with us. But hey, he can run the rock so they might as well leave him over there."
Tight end Jermichael Finley also wasn’t concerned about Lacy’s weight:
"He's working hard to do the best he can to handle his weight," Finley said. "But at the same time, if he can hold it and run like he's been running, who cares? That's my opinion."
Lacy scored touchdowns in each of the next two games, both wins, then “pounded” out a career-high 150 yards against the Bears. Unfortunately, nothing Lacy could do would stall the reality of what happened that night in Green Bay: A Rodgers injury that forced Seneca Wallace to take over for the majority of the game, and the Packers lost 27-20. Without Rodgers for six more games, Green Bay went 2-4-1, with the pressure all on the rookie running back to hold the load. He responded as well as you may hope, rushing for 72 yards a game with four touchdowns, and catching 19 of 24 targets for 158 yards.
Towards the end of Rodgers’ absence, the Packers squeezed out two one-point wins, with Lacy scoring a touchdown in each as Green Bay managed to stay in the playoff hunt with Matt Flynn under center. The last of which being a 37-36 win over the Cowboys, in which Lacy scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:34 remaining.
The OROY talks began and didn’t stop. Following a win over Atlanta, the most important moniker of all was bestowed upon him:
“I had to improvise, I had to chop my feet just so I don’t put as much pressure on it as I normally would,” Lacy said. And it wasn’t as though Lacy was having an easy day to begin with. Most of 65 total yards he gained came with several Falcons gang tackling. Many times Lacy’s second and third efforts with players draped all over him was the reason he accumulated the yardage that he did.
The guy is simply a beast.
He scored three more touchdowns over his final two games, including two in an extremely close loss to the Steelers. (Bell scored the game-winner.) His final rookie total:
284 carries, 1,178 yards, 11 touchdowns, 4.1 YPC, 35 catches, 257 yards, ninth in DYAR, and he didn’t fumble again after Week 1.
At 8-7-1, the Packers slipped into the postseason thanks to Lacy and a crappy NFC North division. Once again facing San Francisco, they led 17-13 in the fourth quarter and were tied 20-20 with five minutes to go, but Kaepernick etched out two key first downs and Lacy’s NFL comp Gore helped along the way, as the Niners won 23-20 on a clock-expiring 33-yard field goal.
Lacy had 81 yards on 21 carries.
Other than a concussion that he can’t be blamed for, Lacy was durable, playing in 16 of a possible 17 games. He would play in 35 of a possible 36 games over the next two seasons.
The Lacy that we saw in 2013, and in 2014 when he rushed for 1,139 yards on an improved 4.6 YPC, would have never signed a one-year deal like he did with Seattle this past March. However, he did fall out of favor in 2015 and then missed most of 2016 with an ankle injury. The durability concerns are back, as are the weight worries, but we could also say that in that way, 2017 is almost exactly like 2013; Lacy fell in the draft back then, he “fell” in free agency this year; he was too fat then, he’s “too fat” now; he couldn’t stay healthy then, most don’t think he can last a full season now.
He was one of the NFL’s most exciting and effective backs back then ... what will he be now?
I think we should be more invested to find out the answer to that question than most are letting on.