Green Bay Packers running back James Starks, left, gets by San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis (52) for a first down during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers might have found themselves a new starting halfback.
Nearly two years after he last played in a game, James Starks had the look of a guy who could single-handedly revive the running game.
In his first NFL game and his first real, live football since his junior season in college at the University at Buffalo, the rookie sixth-round draft pick carried 18 times for 73 yards in Sunday’s 34-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field.
In the process, he displayed the kind of power and vision the Packers haven’t had since starter Ryan Grant went down for the season with an ankle injury in the season opener in Philadelphia.
After weeks of watching Brandon Jackson, Dimitri Nance and converted fullback John Kuhn carry the ball with moderate success, at best, perhaps Sunday represented a changing of the guard at running back.
“I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “The guy ran the ball well, but …”
Starks didn’t fumble, which was the Packers’ chief concern because of how much time he’s been away from full-contact football. He turned what could have been short or no gains into positive-yardage plays because he used his big frame (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) to carry defenders forward, and he was decisive in his cuts.
His best run was as 16-yarder off right guard on the second play of a 17-play, fourth-quarter drive that ate up 8 minutes and 35 seconds of the clock.
“I like his running style,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Everybody is going to talk about how high he (runs) just because of his particular build. But he’s a talented young man and when he comes off the back end, you better watch out, it’s going to the end zone. He has that kind of ability. He falls forward, and the bigger backs have that ability, and that’s the difference. That’s the difference between second-and-7 and second-and-4. And that’s what we’ll continue to train him to do. He has that little different dimension than the other two guys.”
No one – not even Starks – knew he would see as much action as he did, especially given how long he’s been away from the game. He missed his entire senior season because of a shoulder injury and then severely pulled a hamstring last May in one of his first offseason workouts with the Packers. He spent all of training camp and the first six weeks of the regular season on the physically unable to perform list. After practicing for three weeks, he was added to the roster on Nov. 9 but was inactive for the next two games against Minnesota and Atlanta. But when Nance sustained a concussion last week against the Falcons, it opened the door for Starks.
The Packers’ plan was to get Starks some work, about eight to 10 carries, in the base package but because they expected to use so much of their multiple-receiver sets, Jackson was still slated to get most of the work. Instead, in part based on what the 49ers did defensively, the Packers stuck with a heavy dose of their base or two-tight-end packages.
“I felt good,” Starks said. “After I was getting hit and taking the contact, I felt good. My legs felt strong. I felt like I could keep moving.”
The 18 carries by Starks were the most by a single Packers’ running back since Jackson had that same number in Week 1 against the Eagles. On Sunday, Jackson, who has a 3.8-yard average per carry and a team-high 514 yards rushing, carried just four times for 13 yards. That was his lightest workload of the season, although he did catch four passes for 63 yards, including a 37-yard screen that set up the Packers’ second touchdown.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Jackson said when asked if there will be opportunities for both him and Starks. “I felt like there were opportunities in the passing game. I contributed to that, so I’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
When asked if he and Starks have different styles, Jackson: “I don’t want to get into different styles. Starks, he did great.”
That Starks averaged a respectable 4.1-yards per carry against a 49ers run defense that came in ranked eighth in rushing yards allowed per game and sixth in rushing average made his debut all the more impressive.
“I think he did some good things,” Philbin said. “But Brandon Jackson’s done some very good things as well. We wanted to get some information on the kid.”