Starks emerges as go-to back
After Ryan Grant went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, the Green Bay Packers were left without a true every-down back. They didn’t have a runner who could move the pile, move the chains, handle 20 carries per game, catch the ball out of the backfield and protect Aaron Rodgers’ back side.
Brandon Jackson’s strengths were best suited to third down: picking up the blitz and catching the ball. John Kuhn was the short-yardage battering ram. The Packers signed Dimitri Nance as insurance on Sept. 14, but he has added little to the mix.
Waiting in the wings was a rookie sixth-round draft pick who sat out his senior season at the University of Buffalo with a shoulder injury and started his professional career on the Packers’ physically unable to perform list: James Starks. The committee buster.
After Starks played a key role Sunday by rushing for 123 yards in Green Bay’s 21-16 victory over Philadelphia in an NFC wild-card game, it would appear the committee approach has run its course.
Jackson and Kuhn still have a place in certain offensive packages, but McCarthy has found his 20-carry back.
And not a moment too soon, because the Packers
(11-6) face the NFC’s top-seeded team, the Atlanta Falcons (13-3), at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
“Well, he definitely deserves opportunity,” McCarthy said at his news conference Monday. “He’ll run the ball against Atlanta, if that’s what you’re asking me. Yeah, he’s going to carry the ball in Atlanta. He earned that.”
Starks has played extensively in just two games as a pro, and he’s already set two team records.
When he rushed for 73 yards against San Francisco in his NFL debut Dec. 5, he broke the franchise record for yards by a running back in his first game. Against the Eagles, he broke the record for yards by a rookie in the postseason. The previous mark was 88 by Travis Williams on Dec. 23, 1967.
“We’ve known how good James was the first day he came in,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk. “We weren’t even wearing pads back in the spring and we knew he could do some great things.”
The 6-foot-2 Starks, who has a chiseled upper body and long legs, suffered a hamstring strain during practice May 18 and was placed on the PUP list at the start of training camp. He missed invaluable practice time and some wondered whether he’d be able to contribute anything this year.
“I didn’t have doubts,” Starks said. “I stayed in a positive light and prayed on it. I knew I would get blessed with an opportunity.”
The week after his promising debut against the 49ers, Starks gained just 8 yards in six carries in an ugly 7-3 loss to Detroit. He was inactive the next two games and admitted he needed to develop better practice habits.
All indications are that he did just that.
“I think he really learned the last month or so how to be a professional and that this is a seven-day-a-week job and you have to practice well if you are going to play on Sunday,” Rodgers said. “His practice habits have really improved in the last month and he has been re-energized.”
Starks, 24, is a polite, quiet kid who breaks into a smile when reporters approach him. He never lets more than a question or two go by without repeating how grateful he is for his opportunity in Green Bay and how thankful he is for the offensive line, the fullbacks, the receivers and just about anybody who draws a paycheck from the Packers.
He also seems oblivious to pressure, doesn’t over-think and so far has not made any glaring mistakes. His performance against the Eagles, in a difficult venue and with the Packers’ season on the line, came in just his fourth game as a pro.
“I’m just going to do my job,” Starks said. “The coaches don’t ask too much of me. They just ask you to do your job. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to be the best at my job.”
When the Packers played the Falcons on Nov. 28, they had virtually no running game. Jackson rushed for 26 yards and Rodgers scrambled for 51. Nance was stoned on a key third-and-1 and Rodgers failed to score from the 1 on two consecutive carries, fumbling the ball away on the second.
If Starks can be half as effective against Atlanta as he was Sunday, the Falcons will have to honor play-action, and Rodgers, who threw for 344 yards in that first meeting, will have precious extra tenths of a second to scan the field.
And there is nothing like a back breaking off a 25-yard run to energize an offense.
“It really is a boost to the offense when you see a guy running his heart out,” said tight end Tom Crabtree. “You want to make plays for him.”