Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant (25) runs with the ball during the Packers annual Family Night at Lambeau Field on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011. Photo by Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
The days of just one halfback carrying the load for the Green Bay Packers appear to be over.
While Packers coach Mike McCarthy isn’t ready to name a starter, he has a pretty good idea how his runners will be utilized this season.
When asked Saturday night if he hopes to use a tandem backfield, McCarthy replied: “I hope so. It’s a long season, 16 games, carrying the ball 20 to 25 times a game, that’s a lot for one individual to go through. I hope to be spreading the ball around at every position, that’s my goal.”
What that likely means is that Ryan Grant and James Starks will be sharing the load this season.
It’s a far cry from the way Grant was used in 2008 and 2009, when he was the Packers’ workhorse. Grant averaged 19.5 carries per game in 2008, which was 83% of the total among running backs. He averaged 17.6 carries in 2009, or 75% of the total for backs.
But Grant’s days as the Packers’ go-to rusher likely ended when he broke his ankle and was lost for the season in Week 1 in 2010.
Grant said he feels good and is back to full health but in his absence last year the Packers developed Starks, who carried the load during the team’s run to the Super Bowl title.
So now the Packers have two starting-caliber halfbacks for the first time since the mid-1990s when Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens were carrying the ball.
“I really like the way Ryan’s looked, and I think James is significantly more comfortable,” said McCarthy.
“I feel good about where we are with the running backs.”
Grant was the starter at the Family Night practice Saturday at Lambeau Field but Starks alternated with the No. 1 offense.
“As far as who runs out of the tunnel (as the starter in the season opener), that’s something that training camp will answer,” said McCarthy. “They’ll all play. I’m not naming any starter (yet).”
If Grant is miffed that he won’t get as many carries as he used to, he’s not letting on.
“I want to win,” said Grant. “I’m OK with whatever’s in the best interest of this team. I think James is talented. I think he can help this team win, just like I can. So I’m all about winning. I’m not really into the other stuff.”
Starks isn’t worried that his status as the primary ball carrier late last season could be reduced. In fact, he welcomes sharing the load with Grant.
“He’s a great player too,” said Starks. “Our backfield is stacked, even with (rookie Alex) Green coming in.
“We’ve got a lot of competition going, but I think it’s bringing out the best in each back.”
Starks is bigger and stronger than a year ago and has looked impressive during the first week of training camp. During the Family Night practice he broke into the open on a cutback move and was credited with an 11-yard gain before the play was blown dead. But had there been live tackling, it’s possible Starks might have taken it 69 yards for a touchdown.
McCarthy said earlier this week that he likes what Starks has done in training camp.
“I think he’s as explosive as he was in the playoffs,” McCarthy said. “You saw James Starks at 100% during our playoff run. He is a little bigger. He came in, he’s put on another five or six pounds. So I think he looks more powerful than he did last year particularly when he puts his foot down and hits that second level. He’s had a very good camp.”
Grant looks fully recovered, and the Packers gave him a vote of confidence when they opted to pay a $1.75 million roster bonus to keep him this season. Starks in particular has noticed Grant’s veteran leadership.
“He’s always doing his job, working hard, finishing all the way through the line, helping me when I needed help,” said Starks.
The running backs sound like one big happy family.
“All of us are like brothers,” said Starks. “We take up for each other. If one is slacking we try to pick that person up. So that’s how the Packers organization is and how this running back group is.”
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Press-Gazette. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikevandermause.