Janesville19.1°

Lacy built to shoulder the load for Packers

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
December 6, 2013

GREEN BAY--Eddie Lacy has officially gained the respect of the Big Back Fraternity.

When Jerome Bettis studies today’s game, “The Bus” sees far too many 2WD, compact cars. Running backs like he used to be are going extinct. The mano-a-mano collision is fleeting.

Then he watches the Green Bay Packers rookie.

“Big, physical, runs with an attitude,” Bettis said. “I like to see that. He’s one guy I look at like, ‘OK, I’m impressed.’”

Down in Atlanta, so is Jamal Anderson. He was the moment he saw Lacy from the sideline during an Alabama game.

“I said, ‘Whew! This big boy has footwork,’” Anderson said. “He has one of the prettiest spins for a guy his size. I like that short toss that they run with him, that one he had at Baltimore. Whew! I said, ‘Good gracious!’”

Screws in his hand, his big toe fused, his body 207 carries into an NFL career, Lacy has proven he can handle and inflict pain. The 5-foot-11, “230”-pound running back has been toting defenders on his back all season, rushing for 822 yards and six touchdowns. With the Packers set to face Atlanta and veteran Steven Jackson, there’s no debate, they made the right decision at running back last off-season.

Lacy never complains. After games, he says he’s sore. Nothing more. But how long can this 23-year-old continue to absorb and exact so much punishment? The hard-charging Bettis made a conscious, career-saving adjustment. For one year—1998—Anderson had arguably the best single season ever for a “big” back.

In his 10 full games, Lacy is averaging 20.6 attempts per game. It’s been a decade since a back in Green Bay carried the ball this much.

Doing it long term demands a careful combination of attitude and smarts.

“The question is, ‘What type of body type does he have?’” Bettis said. “When you look at Eddie Lacy, he’s got a physical body type. He can take the 25-, 30-carry pounding that you need to take in the NFL. I don’t see that being an issue. But you worry that over the course of his career that he’s going to take a lot.”

The bruising, plus-sized back must first have rare strength.

Anderson was embarrassed, downright ashamed that day in the weight room at Utah. Here the college freshman had spent all off-season working out and he could only bench press 315 pounds. Some squirt of a running back behind him in line threw up 320 pounds.

“I’m like, ‘Ah, hell no. No, no, no,’” Anderson recalled. “I worked like a maniac that next off-season. I waited for everybody to do their thing next time and benched 435 pounds.”

When it came time for squats, he waited in line again and—to the chorus of teammates screaming—the 240-pound Anderson squatted 670 pounds. He went from “being embarrassing” to “being the force” on his team in college. In the pros, Anderson used those tree-trunk thighs to rush for 1,846 yards on 410 carries with 14 touchdowns in the 1998 season.

He willed Atlanta to the Super Bowl. Those 410 attempts rank second all time.

When you have this size, this sheer strength, Anderson says, you have to corner defensive backs into “a business decision.”

“Do I want to get in front of this guy? People have to think about this,” Anderson said. “Eddie’s a little taller than me, too. So if he comes, and he comes with a certain presence and he’s bringing it and he’s coming with those shoulder pads, he can make people make a business decision.”

Anderson dismisses the narrative that 1998 triggered an eventful, career-ending knee injury in 2001. Bigger backs should run hard, he says.

“My whole game,” Anderson said, “was ‘I’m trying to run through you—I’m going to be physical.’”

Both Anderson and Bettis recall their greatest hits on demand. Anderson points to a collision with San Francisco’s Merton Hanks. Bettis goes back to 2005. In the mud, the snow, he met Brian Urlacher head-on at the goal line and won.

The play symbolized a career. This is how people will probably remember Bettis. Total demolition. He left 10-car pile-ups behind. But for each Bettis, there are dozens of 240-, 250-pound ball-carriers whose careers expire. Bettis knows he nearly experienced a quick (and painful) exit himself.

His 1993 rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams, Bettis—like Lacy—was an instant workhorse. He was named the offensive rookie of the year. But his 294 carries might as well have been 694. Bettis separated his shoulder, bruised his sternum and had a “baseball-sized” lump on his hip. In practice, he needed to wear a red jersey to avoid contact.

So he tweaked his game. He quit taking on tacklers with such life-or-death zest every carry. He incorporated a pinch of Franco Harris into his game by stepping out of bounds. Each Sunday was a mind game to Bettis.

In the first half, he feasted on contact. Later in games—when those defensive backs braced for 255 pounds of hurt—Bettis relied on quickness, footwork. He knew when to inflict pain.

“Later in the games I knew that you needed to try to tackle me and you were nervous from what I did earlier in the game,” Bettis said. “You went after me low. So now it’s my time here to be a little bit more elusive, to jump over the arm tackle at my ankles to make a big play. So I would use my aggressiveness and physicality to my advantage.

“Hopefully they get Eddie to understand that and he’s going to be smart when those opportunities present themselves.”

Looking back, Bettis said he wouldn’t have lasted more than three seasons if he continued to run with his rookie recklessness. Instead, his Hall of Fame-caliber career lasted 13 seasons, 3,479 carries.

Bettis expects Lacy to grasp this same “psychology” of the position. For now, Lacy says there are ways he contorts his body to lessen the impact, but he’s still taking on defenders, he’s still a bull on the sideline.

In Green Bay’s 26-26 tie with Minnesota at Lambeau Field, he posterized Xavier Rhodes.

“Going back to college, I was taught to be violent on the boundary,” Lacy said then. “I didn’t know if it was a safety or a linebacker. I knew that I was going to force the blow. So I did it. He kind of flew away there.”

Delivering hits isn’t as painful as taking them, Lacy says. But as time passes, as the hits accumulate, both Bettis and Anderson know Lacy will need to use an element of elusiveness from Alabama. The go-to spin move. The quick feet.

For now, Anderson explains, Lacy is laying a foundation of fear.

“Of course you evolve. Of course, of course,” Anderson said. “But once you’ve established how you’ve entered into the league, and you get that into peoples’ minds, then you start working on this, that and the other. You don’t want to be a fool. But if you come with a certain pad level and you have a chance to take people on—you take them on with everything you’ve got.

“I see guys now in certain situations go down. I had this attitude that if one person is ever bringing me down, I failed on that play.”

Anderson believes Bettis mastered this balance. He was wider than both backs. But for 250, 255 pounds, he could also run away from people. He toyed with cornerbacks. Bettis’ voice speeds up reminiscing about those fourth quarters.

“They’re coming up with their heads down just throwing themselves in there because they don’t want to get run over,” Bettis said, “that’s when you use that quickness and agility and turn that 8-yard run into a 28-yard run.”

That might be the key to Lacy’s longevity. Variety. The odometer will be tested this month. For one, Lacy never even saw snow before arriving in Green Bay. He briefly exited Green Bay’s game against Minnesota due to asthma. Built for the cold weather, he’s never experienced cold weather.

He smiles, he vows he’s fine physically. Yet the carries are adding up, fast.

“You’re always concerned, especially with a young guy like that,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “But we need him and he’s running hard. As long as he’s feeling good and not complaining about anything, we’re all good.”

Big picture, Van Pelt is hopeful Lacy can last “a long time.” The off-season will be important. It’s “like running the triathlon,” Van Pelt said.

Anderson puts it in big-back terms.

“Pass this along to Eddie from me—don’t get comfortable. Don’t relax,” Anderson said. “We’re big. We are predisposed to gain weight in the off-season on the luxury tour. We have to continue to work.”

“That metabolism starts slowing down and we are already big bodies. So you have to work.”

Until then, the Packers will keep feeding Lacy the ball. A lot. And they’ll probably do so until they can’t anymore.



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