Starks carries load after Lacy exit
GREEN BAY—James Starks was here all along.
He wasn’t in the training room nursing an injury or on the bench because he fumbled or somewhere else completely because he didn’t make the team.
Starks, the guy who arguably had the best training camp of any of the Green Bay Packers’ backs this summer, was just waiting for a chance.
Sort of the opposite of gone but not forgotten.
That is, until he was needed during the Packers’ 38-20 romp over Washington Sunday at Lambeau Field, a scenario that arose when rookie prospect Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game on his first carry because of a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit initiated by Washington safety Brandon Meriweather.
Starks turned his opportunity into a virtuoso performance, rushing 20 times for a career-high 132 yards and a touchdown while adding another 36 yards on four receptions. He looked stronger and more powerful than the guy whose career flashed in the Packers’ Super Bowl postseason of 2010.
“James has been a good player for us around here,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “This has been a real challenge for him, with (draft picks) Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin coming in, and he’s just been a pro.”
Starks didn’t get many carries in the preseason because the coaches were working so hard to get Lacy and Franklin ready for the regular season, but from the first day of camp he looked like a different player. After spending the offseason dedicating himself to his physical fitness, he avoided injury and had the finest camp of his career.
When it finally came time to carry the ball in the regular season, he looked like someone who was built specifically for McCarthy’s offense.
“James ran hard, man,” guard Josh Sitton said.
Lacy, despite a inauspicious debut against San Francisco (a fumble, 2.9 yards per carry), got the start. McCarthy has been determined to tap into the rookie’s potential and on the first series Sunday used him exclusively at halfback.
At the end of his only rush—a 10-yard blast in which he was vulnerable due to being off-balance—he absorbed a blow from Meriweather’s helmet close to his chin. It was obvious right away there was a problem because Lacy took his time getting up and appeared dazed.
Once it was determined Lacy had a concussion, he was done for the day, a mandatory rule under the NFL’s concussion protocol. Not only was he finished Sunday, he’ll have to pass a series of tests proving he no longer has concussion-related symptoms before he’ll be allowed to even practice.
It is conceivable Lacy could miss the Packers’ game Sunday at Cincinnati, their last before the bye week.
McCarthy did not speculate on Lacy’s probability for next week. He’ll have to pass cognitive tests, make it through a series of physical trials and be cleared by an independent neurologist before being allowed to play again.
If Lacy can’t play—and probably even if he can—Starks stands to take some of his snaps. After averaging 6.6 yards per carry, it’s hard to imagine him being forgotten again.
“I know this is what I’m capable of doing,” said Starks, who broke the Packers’ string of 51 games (including playoffs) without a 100-yard rusher. “I just have to keep rolling. It’s one game. I have to continue to get better, do things right each and every play and try to be a better player.”
Against a Washington defense that had been gashed for 263 yards rushing against Philadelphia last week, Starks was patient while receiving a heavy diet of outside zone plays. The Packers’ offensive line kept trying to stretch out plays to get Washington’s linebackers to over-pursue and create cutback lanes for Starks.
On his first three carries, all on the Packers’ first series, he ran for 3, minus-1 and 1 yard. He did not touch the ball on a running play again until the second quarter. On second and 4 at the Packers 31, he ran off tackle to the left and broke into the Redskins’ secondary.
As he broke tackles and stayed in bounds along the sideline, he prepared for a hit from Meriweather, who lowered his head again and tried to knock Starks into next week. Instead, he knocked himself silly and left the game with a concussion.
The line continued to stretch out the defense and Starks continued to find the holes.
“We talked all week, just run and stay moving as a line,” Sitton said. “Even if you got out-leveraged, just keep moving, keep running. That’s something we talk about all the time. Even if you don’t have the perfect block, you just keep running, good things will happen.”
What kept happening was Starks found holes to run through. Interspersed with a bunch of long completions by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Starks played a big role in keeping drives alive.
“It was just more of a tempo game,” center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “We got clean looks, called the runs when they needed to be called. We had success when we called them. James did a hell of a job running.
“When you get out there and can create some space in the run game, it opens up the pass game. Then you can do whatever you want out there. It’s kind of what it turned into.”
Starks finally reached the end zone in the third quarter with a 32-yard run through an enormous hole on the left side.
The Packers finished with 580 yards, the second most in franchise history behind the 628 Vince Lombardi’s team gained against Philadelphia in 1962. Of those yards gained Sunday, 139 were on the ground, which was a major improvement from the 63 the Packers gained against the 49ers.
Starks said he never gave up on himself despite seeing Lacy and Franklin receive the bulk of the work in preseason games and believed he would get his chance at some point. He said he studied this week as though he were going to play to make sure he was ready whenever the call came.
“I feel good,” Starks said. “That’s what I worked for this offseason, to be better as a player, to come in here and be better, period: different person, different mindset.”