It’s been well documented. James Starks, the former Buffalo Bull (NCAA) and Packers sixth-round draft pick had been pretty much a non-factor during his rookie NFL campaign. He had just 29 carries for 101 yards and zero touchdowns which isn't going to garner any Rookie of the Year love.
But while high profile rookies like Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Devin McCourty will be watching the big game on their big screens, Starks will be front and center in the NFL’s big spectacle.
Sound familiar? It should.
Turn back the clock to 1987 and you’ll find one Washington Redskins RB Timmy Smith a fifth-round draft pick out of Texas Tech that no one this side of Joe Gibbs really had on their radar. Smith even had the same modest total of 29 carries as a rookie with the Skins that season.
Then came the postseason and Smith’s rather pedestrian name became a household one in NFL circles.
To be honest, they did take quite different routes to get to their Super Bowl opportunities.
The '87 'Skins were an interesting team. Included in the march to their 11-4 regular season record were three games featuring replacement players. NFL labor issues are not a new phenomena. That season had one week cancelled altogether before the next three weeks featured the replacements, and the Redskins were the only team to benefit from their replacements going a perfect 3-0. In addition, Washington was the only team not to have a single regular cross the picket line.
When the regulars came back in late October, the 'Skins were sitting at 4-1 on top of the NFC East. A funny thing about those '87 'Skins was how many “replacement” players actually had a historical impact on the team’s ultimate success. It wasn’t just the actual lockout replacement players I’m talking about here.
If you look at the team’s regular season, you’ll find it was QB Jay Schroeder, not Doug Williams (the eventual Super Bowl MVP), taking the lion’s share of snaps and boasting an 8-2 records as a starter while doing so.
At RB our Timmy Smith finished a distant fifth on the team in carries. Smith was stuck behind a solid platoon of former Pro Bowler George Rogers, one year removed from leading the NFL in TD’s, and Kelvin Bryant, the former USFL star who also finished second on the team in receptions.
Just for kicks, check out Lionel Vital on Profootballreference.com. Vital’s three games of NFL glory included a gaudy 115.3 ypg avg. Vital went on to work as a scout for several franchises after his “retirement.”
When it came to the playoffs though Coach Joe Gibbs went with his gut, and it was Williams starting all three post season games at QB and Smith becoming the featured back. Gibbs' instincts proved to be right on as Williams and Smith led the 'Skins to three straight victories including a resounding 42-10 victory over John Elway’s Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.
The Super Bowl victory included Smith setting an all-time SB rushing record with 204 yards to go with his two touchdowns, while Williams set a then passing record of 340 yards including four TD passes in the second quarter.
So can Starks become this years Timmy Smith?
His 263 postseason rushing yards haven’t necessarily always been pretty, but then again Smith’s 138 yards (in two games) were hardly an indication of the Super Bowl XXII explosion on his horizon.
One thing I am sure about is Starks would like to end all similarities to Smith at the conclusion of Super Bowl XLV. Following Super Bowl XXII Smith slipped back into obscurity showing up for the following season out of shape and eventually sustaining a variety of injuries that prevented him from ever returning to glory. He was out of football after just four seasons (one of which he didn’t play) and finished his career with just 602 career rushing yards (not including those 342 postseason yards).
It is only the occasional Super Bowl trivia question and a 2005 drug arrest that have momentarily returned him to our collective consciousness.
For Starks the route to his opportunity has brought him to the brink of Super Bowl XLV. How, or if, history remembers his moment, only time will tell.