The Green Bay Packers’ 2021 running back duo Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are making their push as one of the greatest running pairs in Packers history.
The numbers back up this monumental claim.
Known for their legendary quarterbacks, the Packers are no slouch when it comes to dynamic running back twosomes. Many think back to the days of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung during the Packers’ glory years with Vince Lombardi at the helm. Others may think of Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett.
Perhaps another tandem comes to mind for you.
Clarke Hinkle and Johnny Blood of the Packers’ dominant 1930s days would be a pretty good choice, too. Or what about Blood and Verne Lewellen of the Packers’ first three-peat 1929-1931?
Having two dangerous backs is clearly in the Packers’ DNA.
But maybe your mind goes to the ‘Lean Years’ between Bart Starr and Brett Favre, to the backs that put up great numbers despite the Packers losing far more games than they won. And you wouldn’t be foolish to think of those years, a surprise to some. We’ll dive into those duos later.
The fact is, Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are going to be a pair that lives in the minds of Packers fans for generations to come. They’re that historically productive — in 2021 at least.
Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are the first set of running backs to each put up 1,000+ total yards and 6+ total touchdowns in the same season in Packers history.
The first duo to ever hit those lofty marks in the same season.
When the Packers resigned Aaron Jones to a four year contract extension in 2021, after drafting AJ Dillon in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the experts laughed.
The analytics-are-everything crowd laughed even harder.
“You shouldn’t spend high draft capital on the running back position,” we were told. “Never give a second contract to a running back,” they yelled.
Yet here we are, witnessing these two do something that no duo of running backs has ever done in Packers history. This is why the Packers drafted Dillon, this is why the Packers re-signed Jones, this is why general manager Brian Gutekunst deserves more credit than you can imagine.
Gutekunst believed in his plan. He believed in running the ball. No one is saying now that the Packers need another wide receiver. Would you trade Dillon for a number two wide receiver? I venture to say most Packers fans would say no. This tandem is too dangerous.
Think back to the 2019 offseason. What did the Packers need to get over the hump to the Super Bowl? They have since doubled down on their commitment to the running game, despite having Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
Gutekunst needed this running back duo to be special to justify drafting and re-signing these two backs. They’ve been special as hell; historically great. Gute was right. Again.
Imagine it’s a crucial third and three or four late in the game:
The Packers can run with Jones, run with Dillon, pass to Jones, pass to Dillon… or throw to Davante Adams, the best wide receiver in the league, or Rodgers can run or throw to any of his other preferred targets. It’s overwhelming to think of all of their options. How can a defense possibly prepare for all of these options? But the crux of this formula is having two great running backs.
Some football truths are eternal. A strong running game wins games, even to this day.
However this isn’t the first time in franchise history that two running backs (including fullbacks) have put up 1,000+ total yards in the same season in Green Bay.
It’s occurred just four times (1971, 1972, 1980, 2021).
But 1,000+ yards from scrimmage and 6+ touchdowns from scrimmage? That’s happened once.
The 2021 season is the first time that’s ever happened, thanks to Jones and Dillon. That is how impressive and equally talented these two backs are. Perhaps it shows how well they complement each other.
Football fans have long coveted having a true “thunder and lightning” one-two punch at running back. There’s something about one back running past defenders, while the other back runs through defenders that just feels great. And the Packers currently have exactly that.
But it’s rare.
Not many teams in NFL history have employed this type of perfectly cast tandem at the running back position. This is especially true in the last 30-40 years of the NFL as the game has has evolved into more and more a passing game.
The Packers famously had a tandem like this in the 1960s and they helped the Packers win four World Championships. Of course we’re talking about Taylor and Hornung. But even they never came close to these numbers in the same season.
Aaron Jones is obviously the “lightning” of this scenario, while AJ Dillon is certainly the “thunder.”
Here’s the thing that makes this duo so special: Jones runs with more strength than many football fans realize and Dillon is faster than many football fans realize. So even though both runners have their strengths, their other traits are impressive, too.
And we haven’t even mentioned how both are so damn dangerous in the passing game. Both can catch passes, often in crucial situations, and both can block for Aaron Rodgers. It has to be mentioned that Jones, in particular, can run routes in the slot if needed. He’s that versatile.
Both backs have over 30 receptions on the season, a rarity in Packers history. Jones has 52 receptions and Dillon has 33.
Heading into the final week of the 2021 season, Jones is averaging 5.3 yards per touch and Dillon was averaging 5.1 yards per touch. Jones has 59 first downs on the season and Dillon is leading the two with 62 first downs. Jones has more receiving touchdowns, total touchdowns and yards, while Dillon has more rushing touchdowns.
The balance between them is astounding.
Jones has a jaw-dropping explosiveness with the ball in his hands and Dillon has a relentless motor to complement his punishing running style. They use different styles that complement one another; if the defense can somehow stop one, it’s not likely that they can stop the other.
At a frozen Lambeau Field, neither can be fun for opposing defenses to bring down.
In his first season without his father, Aaron Jones has certainly honored his dad, Alvin Jones, Sr. Thankfully, his father did get to see him lead the entire NFL in touchdowns (19) in 2019. But this season feels even more special given the way this tandem (he and Dillon) plays so well and keeps each other fresh.
Jones and former Packer Jamaal Williams were a fun duo. Everyone agreed. Williams was always dancing, always laughing, was an elite blocker, a bruising runner who never fumbled and an above-average blocker… but Dillon is the far better back. That’s just the fact of the situation.
With these guys keeping each other fresh, the Packers are poised to lean on them if they hold onto the No. 1 seed in the NFC heading into the playoffs. Try tackling Dillon in the snow or cold. Then try to keep pace with Jones and vice versa.
Then throw in one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time and the best wide receiver in the league that defenses have to deal with. That is what makes this Packers squad so dangerous, with eyes on the Lombardi Trophy.
“But Games Played In NFL Seasons Have Changed…”
This is a valid point to bring up when celebrating Jones and Dillon.
For what it’s worth, this duo accomplished this feat in just 16 games (which is what the NFL played from 1978-2020). For seasons before 1978, yes, they were at a disadvantage in this particularly statistic. But that’s NFL history for you. Things change.
1,000 Yard RB Duos in Packers History
Lets take an individual look at the times Packers running back duos have both hit 1,000+ total yards in a single-season.
John Brockington and Donny Anderson, 1971:
There’s always a first for everything. Incredible to think that this was the first time in Packers history that two backs both had seasons that special, in terms of total yardage. Yes, there weren’t as much yards to be had in the NFL’s earliest days, but the fact that Brockington and Anderson did this and Taylor and Hornung never did, is stunning.
Prime Brockington was obviously special and he holds the distinction as being the only running back to be a part of two duos to accomplish this feat. He may be the only back to hold that honor until the end of time. That’s how rare it is.
John Brockington and MacArthur Lane, 1972:
It’s equally as incredible that the Packers hit this mark in consecutive seasons. It speaks to the utter dominance of Green Bay’s backfield in the early 1970s, led by John Brockington. He has never gotten the respect he deserves.
This is especially true given the fact that the Packers were without a reliable quarterback in the early 1970s. Defenses could load the box and key on Brockington and his partner in the backfield. Instead, Brockington bowled his way through defenses without abandon for the second straight season.
Brockington had one of the best starts in Packers history for a running back. He posted four straight 1,000+ yards from scrimmage seasons and was named First Team All-Pro as a rookie.
And both of these seasons were 14 game seasons. Pretty awesome.
Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis, 1980:
This is a combination that not many people would have guessed to have hit these lofty numbers. But they did. Ivery and Ellis were both 23 in this season; the entire offense was young. Ellis was listed as the fullback of this combo, but was essentially a second running back. The Packers’ 1980 offense was particularly skilled, despite their 5-10-1 record (16 game season).
James Lofton was a Hall of Fame wide receiver, Paul Coffman was the best tight end in Packers history at that point, and Lynn Dickey was an underrated quarterback with a bigger arm than people today realize. Green Bay had a dangerous enough passing game to make defenses focus on stopping them, which allowed the two young backs to find success. Although both had 45 receptions on the season, so they were part of that ascending passing game.
What’s most fascinating about Ivery and Ellis is that no Packer combination would do this again until the Packers’ 2021 backfield.
Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett never did this. Ahman Green never had a running partner to match his production. The same goes for Ryan Grant, Eddie Lacy and the other Packers backs.
Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, 2021:
A 41 year gap between the last time this feat was accomplished in Green Bay and this year. The NFL has changed dramatically over those four decades, which makes what Jones and Dillon have accomplished even more special.
But remember, of all four of these historic duos, only Jones and Dillon have both scored 6+ touchdowns.
They did it in 16 games, too. This is an important distinction as the NFL season is now 17 games long, as of 2021.
No matter what happens in the future, these running backs will be the first to hit 1,000+ yards from scrimmage and 6+ total touchdowns in Packers history.
Again, Brian Gutekunst deserves credit for these two guys being on the team. Not many people were excited for this duo, but no one is doubting them now.
And all of this is happening while Aaron Rodgers is likely going to win his second consecutive AP MVP Award. That’s how special it is that these two running backs have hit these marks — Rodgers is still throwing a ton and they’re still so productive.
Beyond that, the Packers’ offensive line has been absolutely decimated by injuries. Guys have rotated in and out of the roster so much that only one starter from the beginning of the season is still standing. Despite these historic injuries, the Packers’ running back duo is still making plays every week.
To ever do this is stunning, obviously, as no set of backs have ever done it in Green Bay before. To do it in a season when the offensive line has been so severely injured? It’s unbelievable.
The 2021 season has been so much fun to witness; it’s a special season. The entire Matt LaFleur Era has been fun. But the Packers’ offense has such balance because of these two backs. LaFleur has always been a fan of the running game and it shows that Gutekunst knew what he was doing all along. He brought in a run-first coach, brought in a historically great running back duo and paired them with an all-time great quarterback.
But what makes this tandem even more exciting to root for is they’re clearly both great guys and teammates. They’d be easy to root for even if they weren’t historically dominant — but they are.
How great can this duo become?
The ceiling is incredibly high. They’re both under contract through the 2023 NFL season (Jones through 2024). Jones and Dillon could put up at least two more special seasons in Green Bay. They have a chance to stake their claim as the second best running back duo in Packers history.
Imagine if the two do this again in 2022? Mind-boggling.
Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung will never be touched. They both won an AP MVP Award and helped the Packers win four championships. But after them, debates will rage on. Especially if Jones and Dillon make more history next year. If they don’t, well, at least we got to experience this magical season!
Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are beyond special. They’re historically productive.
Lets hope the Packers ride them to a Lombardi Trophy.
Go Pack Go!