Packers rookie running back Johnathan Franklin reacts after scoring his first career touchdown in the third quarter Sunday. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
CINCINNATI — This was the Green Bay Packers’ nightmare scenario. Thin at running back because of injuries. A close game. Relying on a rookie who never had taken a snap from scrimmage. Catastrophe.
That’s how it played out Sunday as the Packers were trying to protect a 30-27 lead in the waning minutes against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Johnathan Franklin, Green Bay’s fourth-round draft pick this season, dove into the pile on a fourth-and-1 play, but lost the ball on the way up when Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson punched it out of his grip.
Bengals safety Reggie Nelson picked up the loose ball before fumbling it himself. Cincinnati cornerback Terence Newman then took it from there, racing 58 yards for a touchdown and deflating any momentum the Packers had built after recovering from a disastrous start.
“I saw the ball pop out and then Reggie picked it up,” Newman said. “I was trying to get a block, and somebody was trying to tackle him. I started to scream ‘pitch it, pitch it,’ and nobody on defense ever yells that.
“I saw the ball pop loose, and it took a nice bounce where I could grab it on the run. ... I looked to my left and saw Leon (Hall) get a great block on Jordy Nelson, I just opened it up and tried to get to the end zone.”
In the end, the blame for Packers’ 34-30 loss couldn’t all be heaped on Franklin, but his turnover proved to be too much for Green Bay to overcome.
The strange thing is, Franklin’s production to that point was outstanding for a guy who didn’t play at all in the opener at San Francisco and only on special teams against Washington.
He entered Sunday’s game in the second half after starter James Starks was sidelined by a knee injury. Before his fumble, Franklin had rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries on his way to becoming the second Packer to rush for 100 yards this season. He also had two receptions for 13 yards at that point.
But one big mistake can turn a lead into a deficit and a postgame locker room from a coming-out party into a keep-your-chin-up interview.
“I just gotta keep (the ball) high and tight, there’s no excuses for what I was doing or how I was doing it,” said Franklin, who was one of the first players at his locker ready to answer questions. “It’s all about technique. It’s a big play, a big down, and I gotta make a play for my team.
“Regardless of whether it’s my first game or not. It’s all on me, I’ve gotta do my job.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy had a tough decision before the play. The Packers had the ball at Cincinnati’s 30-yard line after Randall Cobb’s 12-yard, third-down reception first was ruled a first down, then overturned upon review. That put Green Bay at fourth-and-short, within field goal range and holding a 30-27 lead with 4 minutes, 1 second left in the game.
“It was really on the mark (of the ball),” McCarthy said of his decision to go for it. “Just based off the on-the-field, you think it’s going to be close, so it was an inches play.”
A field goal attempt by Mason Crosby would have been a 48-yarder. Had he made it, the Packers would have led by six points.
“You had confidence in Mason going in,” McCarthy said. “We were inside the mark in the field goal. It had nothing to do with that. I just felt that we had a chance to convert and get another set of downs and particularly having their defense on the field for another long drive.”
Franklin was only playing Sunday because of the injury to Starks, who had rushed for 55 yards on 14 carries in the first half.
“This whole year, I worked extremely hard this offseason,” Starks said. “Coming in, I felt great, had a big camp. Last few games, starting to get carries. Then just a little freak accident, you-never-know-what’s-going-to-happen-type thing. You just get frustrated a little bit.”
But the injury to Starks was not a total surprise, considering his history, and the Packers decided to go with Starks and Franklin as their only running backs after injuries knocked Eddie Lacy and John Kuhn to the inactive list.
It didn’t seem to matter, though, as the Packers finished with 182 rushing yards — Franklin had 103 on 13 carries to go along with three catches for 23 yards. Along with Starks’ 132-yard rushing day last weekend, it was first time since Dec. 30, 2007, that Green Bay had 100-yard rushers in back-to-back games.
The only blemish: That attention-grabbing fumble.
“This is life,” Franklin said. “Me, you, everybody, we’re always learning, every day. You’ve always got to grow. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. I’ve just gotta understand why certain things happen and grow from it and take a step.
“We’ve got a long season, and hopefully I’m blessed with another opportunity. But I’ve got to continue to work.”