Green Bay Packers' James Starks runs the ball during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 20 at Lambeau Field. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Green Bay Packers running back James Starks played 14 consecutive NFL games between 2010 and 2011 without dealing with a significant injury.
That may not sound like much, but it was a considerable stretch for someone who missed his senior season at Buffalo because of shoulder surgery, all of the preseason and the first 11 games of his rookie season because of a hamstring injury and two other regular-season games because of the hamstring.
A run of good health had been long-awaited.
Starks had surpassed Ryan Grant as the No. 1 back in 2011 until an awkward knee injury derailed things in Week 11. He now has been forced out of three consecutive games with knee and ankle injuries. Starks has not practiced this week and won’t play against the Raiders on Sunday if he doesn’t practice Friday.
But should he be allowed to play even if he can practice Friday?
“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “You’d love to be able to manage reps in a situation where everybody’s healthy and you’re keeping guys’ carries down or snaps down, but I don’t know that you want to do that in an injury setting. I don’t know that it’s good that you’re ever missing games because there’s still value in repetition.
“It works both ways. On the one hand, he could be a little fresher when he heals completely. The negative is, you haven’t moved and developed and progressed as a player when you haven’t got out there, competed, made mistakes, learned and improved. From a freshness standpoint? Maybe. But not from a football development standpoint — I don’t think it helps.”
The swelling in Starks’ ankle hasn’t subsided and he hasn’t tested it all week. The Packers likely won’t need him this week — or the next — against the Raiders (7-5) and Chiefs (5-7).
Coach Mike McCarthy has talked about rotating backs during the regular season to keep them fresh for the playoffs. The team has done the same with defensive linemen of late to manage the huge amount of snaps B.J. Raji has played since the beginning of 2010.
If those are established practices, it could be beneficial to give Starks time to completely heal. After all, the Packers took a similar approach with the backs in 2010, then let Starks average more than 20 carries a game in the playoffs.
“The medical staff makes that decision,” McCarthy said. “Right now, my foot’s on the gas and we’re going. We’re playing to win games. And it’s yes or no when I meet with the trainers. I can’t live in this world of gray. Because you’ve got to make decisions, it’s a team sport, people need to get prepared to play with each other and next to each other.
“So when a player is cleared, we get him in there, and when he’s not, we’ll get him healthy. … In James’ particular case, yes, we need to get him healthy. But I don’t think this is a long-term issue.”
Undrafted rookie free agent Brandon Saine has helped fill the gap left by Starks. He has a total of 64 yards on 13 combined rushes and receptions the last two games, including a 22-yard screen against the Giants. Saine proved to be a slippery runner who isn’t overwhelmingly big or fast, but has just enough of both to be a tough tackle.
Saine likely will see more action Sunday if Starks can’t go. Grant has rushed for 30 yards or more just twice all season — and both came in the first three weeks of the season. Fullback John Kuhn’s carries also have increased with a limited Starks — seven carries the last two weeks after a total of nine the previous 10 games.
“Brandon doesn’t have a lot of wasted movement,” running backs coach Jerry Fontenot said. “I think his knowledge and intelligence shows in his run game because there’s not a lot of wasted movement. He makes a decision and he’s hitting the hole wherever he sees it. And he’s not afraid to put his nose in tight places. … He does a good job at reading things.
“He’s more efficient with his movement in that he’s not going to get out of position or get outflanked in trying to make a guy miss.”
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