Lacy calls Starks 'the better player'
If he was angry, Eddie Lacy didn't show it. He leaned against a table next to his locker Wednesday afternoon, just like every week. The tenor of this conversation, hours after his head coach announced his demotion, was much different.
The former second-round pick, the offensive rookie of the year two seasons ago, is no longer the Green Bay Packers' starting running back. James Starks, the backup Lacy was drafted to replace two years ago, is back in a familiar spot. It's a stunning slip for Lacy, who entered his third season with sky-is-the-limit potential.
As a competitor, Lacy said, he was disappointed to have his job officially stripped away. But he didn't question coach Mike McCarthy's decision. If anything, he publicly supported his own demotion.
"As a team, we're pretty much doing what's needed," Lacy said. "Going with what's necessary at this time. This season, he's definitely been the better player between the both of us."
Lacy's lack of production is among the biggest disappointments this season. He has 308 rushing yards on 83 carries (3.7 yards per carry) with just two touchdowns through eight games. Lacy had a slow start last season, almost by design. Lacy had 428 rushing yards in the first eight games, but he was fresh enough to finish the season playing his best football in time for the playoffs.
This slow start is different. Lacy is on pace for 616 yards and 166 carries, well behind the standard he set the previous two seasons. The former Pro Bowler had more than 1,100 rushing yards in each of his first two years with 24 combined touchdowns.
"I honestly don't know what it is," Lacy said. "Definitely, I'm off to a different start. I'm not playing how I was the previous two years. Later on in the season, maybe it'll pick back up, but as if right now, this is just the move that is going to be."
Starks has been the more dynamic running back this season (334 yards on 78 carries, 4.3-yard average). He had 10 carries and 112 yards against the San Diego Chargers last month, the only time a Packers tailback has hit triple digits this season.
When Lacy exited the Packers' second game with a sprained ankle, Starks had 95 yards on 20 carries against the Seattle Seahawks.
Starks also has been the more versatile running back. With 19 catches and 167 yards, he's on pace for a career year receiving passes out of the backfield. Two of Starks' three touchdowns this season have been receptions.
"He's played very well," McCarthy said. "He's earned that opportunity. I've never been — and we talked about this a number of times in the past — I'm not a big believer in just riding one running back the whole season. We'll stay with the one-two punch."
In the past, Lacy was the Packers' lead tailback while Starks' shifty speed provided a change of pace. Now, he'll fall into a complementary role. Lacy was asked why Starks has become "the better player" this season.
He couldn't offer a specific reason.
Lacy's ankle injury lingered "a couple weeks," he said. But it hasn't been an issue recently, and can't be attributed to his lack of production.
Lacy also was asked whether his weight has hindered his performance. He's always been a big running back, but there have been questions whether he may weigh more than his listed 234 pounds. Earlier this season, McCarthy said Lacy was heavier than his rookie year.
Lacy said his size has had "no" impact on his lack of production.
Still, Lacy said, his demotion is a wake-up call. The NFL is a meritocracy. No matter how big the star, Lacy learned, any player can lose a starting job.
"At the end of the day," Lacy said, "if you're not doing what you need to do, and if somebody else is, then they move in front of you. It's never anything personal. It's always business. You just can't let it affect you.
"You've got to go out there and be the player you are.''
At his best, Lacy can be one of the NFL's elite running backs. He's a tackle-breaking, downhill-running load for opposing defenses to handle.
He hasn't flashed the same power this season. Lacy has forced nine missed tackles as a runner this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He's averaged one missed tackle for every 9.22 carries, almost double the 4.74-carry average of his first two seasons.
Beyond the lack of yards, Lacy's recent struggles with ball security could be a significant reason for McCarthy's decision. Lacy has fumbled in each of his past three games, losing one.
Lacy's fumble with less than five minutes left in the first half Sunday set the Carolina Panthers up at the Packers' 24-yard line, though the extra possession led only to a missed field goal.
"Any time you put the ball on the ground," Lacy said, "you're jeopardizing your job description. You're supposed to hold onto the ball. It's going to happen — it's football — but you want it to happen as less as possible. Ball security's always the No. 1 priority."
Lacy and Starks have a close friendship. Starks uses the term "little brother" when referring to his younger teammate. At one point, their relationship was unlikely. Without Lacy, Starks might have been the Packers' starting running back the past three seasons. But if there ever was any jealousy, it never showed publicly.
So Starks was in an awkward position Wednesday. He had just been officially promoted, but was quick to come to Lacy's defense.
"He's a great player," Starks said. "I'm sure if you look at it, every great player goes through some things, and Eddie's got a great attitude. He'll rebound. He's still Eddie Lacy. Breaks tackles. Strong runner.
"Everything is not going to go in your favor all the time. I think mistakes and things that happen in the game, it builds character. How he returns, it will prove wonders."
Clearly, Lacy doesn't hold a grudge either. During a seven-minute interview, Lacy called Starks a "better" player three times. This was not the expected reaction from a player staring at a demotion, more passive than fiery. Maybe it was fitting. Little about Lacy's season has been expected thus far.
Lacy said he'll continue supporting Starks the way he has been supported. The question is whether he allows the role reversal to last. Certainly, the Packers would prefer their former second-round running back, the offensive rookie of the year two years ago, to start playing like himself.
"He's going to start," Lacy said. "We're still friends. He's going to take over. Whenever I can spell him, I'll spell him. Who knows how long it's going to be like this. Maybe things pick back up for me, and it's right back and we're never having this discussion again.
"You don't know where this could lead to, but as of right now, for the team, this is pretty much the best move."