In the days prior to a second-round playoff game in Atlanta, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers expressed concern about his team’s ability to effectively run the ball.
When asked if the Packers, who rushed for only 77 yards in a loss to the Falcons seven weeks prior, would fare better the second time around, Rodgers was contrite.
“We’ll see about that,” Rodgers said. “Last time I was the leading rusher. Hope that’s not the case again.”
As it turns out, it wasn’t.
Overshadowed by the heroics of Rodgers, who completed 31-of-36 passes in one of the most prolific postseason performances in NFL history, was the welcomed production the quarterback got from his backfield.
James Starks, a sixth-round pick from Buffalo in 2010, carried the ball 25 times for 66 yards against Atlanta. A stat line not exactly worthy of NFL record books—and, in fact, it paled in comparison to his 123-yard performance the previous week against Philadelphia—but Starks has provided Rodgers and the Green Bay offense with the balance it has so sorely lacked for much of the season.
The 2010 campaign began inauspiciously for the Packers. The team’s leading rusher, Ryan Grant, was lost for the season in Week 1 after tearing ligaments in his ankle, leaving the running duties to a hodge-podge of part-timers that included John Kuhn, a fullback by trade who finished the regular season with nearly 100 fewer yards on the ground than Rodgers.
The main man for much of the season was Brandon Jackson, a fourth-year player from Nebraska who had spent much of his career fulfilling minimal roles. Jackson, smallish at 216 pounds, did what he could with his increased workload, but the results have been far from overwhelming.
Despite logging 190 carries, Jackson has averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt. One game with more than 100 yards, and only six with more than 50.
Thankfully for Green Bay, the postseason has coincided with the emergence of Starks, who battled a hamstring injury for the first third of the season, in addition to rumors about a questionable work ethic, which were then erroneously linked to a brief two-game deactivation by head coach Mike McCarthy.
But those concerns have been quelled by Starks’ tutor, running backs coach Edgar Bennett, who insists any insinuations that his pupil lacks the drive couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“The kid works his butt off, he comes here early, he’s in late,” Bennett told the Green Bay Gazette recently. “Honestly. Some people say it (for saying it), (but) the kid comes in here early, early sessions, he prepares, he works hard. It’s starting to show.”
That would be a fair assessment.
Starks, who rushed for 74 yards and a score on 22 carries in Green Bay’s NFC Championship win at Chicago, is the NFL’s leading rusher in the postseason. And unless Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall has one the best performances in Super Bowl history, Starks will end the season as the leader.
Regardless of whether the Packers beat Pittsburgh, Starks’ late-season efforts have earned him a chance of winning the starting job for 2011, igniting a controversy in the backfield between him and Grant, who is expected to be 100 percent for offseason workouts.
And despite evidence to support the contrary, there are reasons why he should be labeled the starter right now.
Strangely enough, at 6’2” and a lean 218 pounds, Starks is built similar to Grant. The two possess almost identical running styles, which have been described as effective, though dangerously upright.
Starks, like Grant, isn’t a burner, but he’s four years the junior of Grant, who at 28, is only a season or two from entering that twilight phase for a running back.
Grant is the more seasoned runner, and possesses value in the passing game, having recorded 73 receptions in his three-plus seasons. But who’s to say Starks can’t do the same when given the touches and a full season over which his stats can be extrapolated?
Jackson, a free agent after this season, has said he doesn’t expect to be back. Plus, it appears no matter what, the Packers will be looking to draft a running back in April, which would enable Kuhn to slide back into his original role on a permanent basis.
Come training camp, the primary running duties next season could be between Starks and Grant, and the former is putting on a pretty impressive audition while the latter watches.
And for Starks, that could make all the difference.