Eddie Lacy didn’t know what to expect the first time he met James Starks.
At Alabama, the young running back often heard stories from former teammates about how players weren’t as close in the NFL. This was a job now. Money was on the line and you’re competing against every player at your position. Feast or famine. Sink or swim.
The Green Bay Packers drafted Lacy in the second round in 2013 to help fix the offense’s struggling run game. He was put in direct competition with Starks, a talented but injury-riddled veteran who was on the roster bubble going into training camp.
Many veterans might have been put off by the new guy in town, but Starks embraced Lacy. The duo became fast friends and combined for more than 4,500 total yards in 2013 and 2014. Each back knew his role. Lacy was the Pro Bowl bell cow. Starks, finally healthy, provided a comparable change of pace.
This season has been Lacy’s most challenging. As questions began to pour in about his conditioning and commitment amid an early slump, the third-year running back sought out Starks to help keep him level and focused, especially when he was benched two weeks ago for blowing curfew.
“We talk all the time whether we’re here or I’m at his house and we’re playing a game or he’s at my house,” Lacy said. “We have a lot of different conversations. Whenever I feel like I need to get something off my chest or talk about whatever it is, he’s always there and willing to listen if I have to talk to him.”
Lacy responded to his demotion with a season-high 124 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s 28-7 win over Dallas, while Starks also had a big day with 103 total yards (71 rushing, 32 receiving) and two touchdowns. The 230 rushing yards the Packers gained on the ground were their most since 2004.
For all the concern over Lacy, the Packers still rank eighth in rushing offense this season largely because of Starks’ career year at age 29. The sixth-year veteran is on pace to set new highs in carries (157.5) and rushing yards (633.8) in addition to becoming a legitimate threat in the passing game.
The 6-foot-2, 218-pound running back has put past problems with drops and pass protection behind him in catching 39 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns. His production on screen plays has been a safety valve for Aaron Rodgers with the passing game struggling for most of the season.
Quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt was introduced to Starks when he served as volunteer quarterbacks coach at the University of Buffalo in 2005. He grew to like the soft-spoken kid from nearby Niagara Falls, N.Y., and it killed him to see the injuries Starks has battled in both college and the pros.
A series of hamstring, ankle, toe and knee injuries resulted in Starks playing in only 22 of his first 48 regular-season games. It looked like his time in Green Bay might be coming to an end when the Packers took two running backs in the 2013 NFL draft: Lacy and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin.
Instead of getting bummed, Starks got better. He became more explosive out of the backfield and reliable in pass protection. With another 126 total yards, Starks will eclipse 1,000 total yards for the first time in a season in his career.
“I can’t tell you personally how proud (I am) of James,” said Van Pelt, the Packers’ running backs coach in 2012 and '13. “He’s a team player. There’s no question about it. He’s not selfish at all. I’m sure he’d love to have more touches, but he fits a role and it’s ever-changing and evolving. Week-to-week, month-to-month he might be the starter due to injury or anything. He does a great job of just keeping his nose down and working his butt off.”
Starks’ strong start led to coach Mike McCarthy anointing him the starter back in November when Lacy was struggling. Lacy re-emerged for two games before Starks was thrown back into the starting lineup after Lacy and third-string running back Alonzo Harris missed curfew in Detroit.
Starks, in the midst of a contract year, remained unwavering in his support of Lacy. Their low-key personalities mix as well as their contrasting running styles. Lacy, an avid fan of comics and Anime, even gave Starks a Green Lantern T-shirt last season to wear under his jersey to match Lacy’s Hulk undershirt.
“We’re both two goofy people who just so happen to be good in football,” Lacy said. “Honestly, he’s helped me through a lot even with the stuff the past weeks with me. Just keeping me straight and showing me, ‘I’ve been here for a long time. I know what you’re going through.’ Just being there for me.”
Running backs coach Sam Gash, a 12-year NFL veteran, took notice of the brotherly bond between Starks and Lacy shortly after he was hired to replace Van Pelt as running backs coach in 2014. He’s only seen that relationship only continue to grow in his two seasons in Green Bay.
“It seems to be a really tight relationship as it’s developed since I’ve been here,” Gash said. “Those guys trust each other, they believe in each other and they push each other. That’s a great combination to have and be friends on top of it. They definitely want the best for each other.”
How long the Packers keep the two running backs together will be decided this offseason when general manager Ted Thompson must decide whether to retain Starks, who’ll turn 30 in February. Traditionally, that’s an age where regression sets in, but Gash and McCarthy feel Starks is only getting started.
One factor that might play into Starks’ return is he only has 637 career touches in six NFL seasons. Comparatively, Lacy already has 775 in his first two-plus seasons. The veteran also has shaken the injury bug, playing in 42 of his last 45 regular-season games.
“That’s a number that I think NFL execs like to use and throw around about runners, but not everybody is the same,” Gash said. “You see Adrian Peterson, he’s an older guy, still productive. There’s certain guys that can just do it and James has those physical gifts that he can play for as long as the Lord allows him.”
Lacy says indiscretions this season are behind him after a recent conversation he had with McCarthy. They left "everything in that room” and started fresh.
It was a wake-up call for Lacy, who’s eligible for a contract extension this offseason. With Starks' support, the former NFL offensive rookie of the year hopes to regain the momentum the duo had in his first two seasons.
“I don’t want to use the word complacency, but I think sometimes when things come easy to you, like you kind of ease off a little bit and you get lax,” Lacy said. “And things need to happen in order to wake you up and show you that it can be taken away, it can get difficult, but that’s how I would say it.”
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