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Despite Starks' prominence, Packers try to keep rushing game on even keel

Nov. 17, 2011
 
Green Bay Packers James Starks (44) jukes past the tackle attempt of Erin Henderson (50) of the Minnesota Vikings during first quarter of the game at Lambeau Field on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011.
Green Bay Packers James Starks (44) jukes past the tackle attempt of Erin Henderson (50) of the Minnesota Vikings during first quarter of the game at Lambeau Field on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette

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This is nothing new, and it worked out fine the last time.

The Packers’ running back rotation has reached a second consecutive season without an individual snatching the position by force. Brandon Jackson averaged 12 carries during the 2010 regular season. John Kuhn averaged just more than five. James Starks received just under 10 in his three regular-season games. A Super Bowl victory was the end result.

The return of Ryan Grant gave a more consistent one-two punch in 2011, but the share-fest continues. Starks has averaged 12.1 carries and Grant 8.6. Kuhn has resumed his fullback role and has eight total rushes.

Two trends, however, could signal a change.

No. 1: Starks clearly has passed Grant. He has 13 carries in each of the last three games with an average of 5.2 yards per attempt. In that same span, Grant averaged seven attempts and 2.4 yards.

No. 2: The Packers abandoned the two-back rotation in the playoffs last season. Starks averaged 20 carries in four postseason games and Jackson had a total of six.

If either is a indicator of change, the Packers aren’t letting on.

Running backs coach Jerry Fontenot was adamant that Grant has played at a high level and both players know the policy.

“The guy who carries the ball the most during the game is the guy that’s most productive,” Fontenot said. “And you never know until you get to that game. So, I go in with the mindset I’d like to get each guy an equal number of carries, if possible.

“Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.”

If that’s the case, Starks has usurped the No. 1 status from Grant despite the “starter” label. Starks has had fewer than 10 attempts just once (9) this season. His worst performance of the year was an 11-carry, 5-yard effort in Chicago. Grant has had fewer than 10 touches in seven of eight games played. That Chicago trip was his crowning moment of the year with season highs in rushes (17) and yards (92).

Snap distribution is one way to keep certain players fresh, though offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said that hasn’t been an active thought. The idea is certainly in coach Mike McCarthy’s head. B.J. Raji saw a reduction in playing time against the Vikings with that in mind.

“I’m not interested in a 1,700-yard back,” McCarthy said. “It takes a pounding. I want James as fresh as he was last year at the most critical time of the year. Same with Ryan.

“It’s important to play with multiple backs. I’m a big believer in that.”

Fresh for the playoffs? That’s when everything changed in 2010. Starks received 23, 25 and 22 carries in the first three rounds. This was after Starks had a total of 29 carries throughout the regular season because of injury.

No one confirmed that shift is in the works. But Starks is playing better than Grant and the coaching staff repeatedly has stated the hot back will get the bulk of snaps. He’s quicker and a tougher tackle than Grant. Pass blocking, defense recognition and vision have been the knocks, but Starks has improved in all three areas.

“I don’t know what it is,” Starks said of his recent success. “I think just everybody’s coming together as a team and learning what we do best. I think we’re just clicking overall.

“You start getting a little bit acquainted with everything that’s going on. Just getting more in tune with the season. At the start of everything you’re a little rusty. … You start getting back in the groove and start getting comfortable. You gain a routine that has been working and just stick with it. That’s been helping me.”

The criticism of Grant is he’s no longer the back who rushed for 1,200 yards in back-to-back seasons (2008-09). His burst has been questioned, but Grant always has been a bigger back who can wear on a defense. The proverbial get-better-as-the-game-goes-on-type runner. Do limited touches diminish is best trait? Grant averaged 18.5 carries per game during those 1,200-yard seasons.

Or is it something else? Grant consistently has said he’s 100 percent recovered from the ankle surgery that ended his 2010 season after one game, but that may not be completely accurate.

“I see a guy who’s coming off a (ankle) injury from last year,” Fontenot said. “I know from my experience, and from most of the experience I’ve had with guys who’ve had that kind of injury, it takes a full year to get back to feeling 100 percent.

“That being said, I think he’s playing at a very high level.”

The Packers are No. 21 in the NFL with 102.8 rushing yards per game. The team is 9-0 and leads the league in scoring (35.6 points). It’s a pass-based offense with MVP frontrunner Aaron Rodgers as option No. 1. The run game has provided enough to keep defenses honest.

But could it be more?

And will it follow the 2010 pattern with a shift to Starks in the postseason?

“It’s hard for me to say what’s going to happen between now and then,” Fontenot said. “My general philosophy has always been, if it’s not broke, then don’t fix it.

“With that being said, who knows what’s going to happen between now and then.”

kcopeland@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @kareemcopeland

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