GREEN BAY - In a season that will be remembered for its weekly inquiries about Eddie Lacy’s weight, along with the public admonishment levied by coach Mike McCarthy in January, there lurked an unsightly undercurrent that would have created its own uproar during any other year.
Though Lacy received 59 fewer carries in 2015 than he did in the year prior, and 97 fewer than his rookie season in 2013, his fumble rate soared to the highest level of his young career. Lacy fumbled five times in the regular season and playoffs combined, and the opposition recovered three.
Alongside Lacy was James Starks, the second half of a one-two punch at running back for the Green Bay Packers. The missteps of the former created an opportunity for the latter, and Starks enjoyed both the heaviest workload and best statistical season of his career in 2015. He carried 148 times for 601 yards and caught 43 passes for 392 more.
Starks also fumbled five times. It matched his total from the previous five years combined.
Yet as the Packers travel to California for an exhibition game Friday against the San Francisco 49ers, they do so with an unblemished security streak under new running backs coach Ben Sirmans, who believes he has identified the underlying issues with Lacy and Starks. This year, seven players within Sirmans’ jurisdiction have combined for 64 carries in the first two exhibition games. The fumble column remains at zero.
“The one thing about him is he’s very, very, very, very meticulous,” tailback John Crockett said of Sirmans. “He pays attention to every small detail, and that’s something that you need to have as a running back, especially at this level. The guys are so talented that it’s the small details, the finer details that make a great player.”
PODCAST: McGinn & Cohen on players to watch
While exhibition games against the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders are not ideal for comparison — teams play vanilla defense and starters make fleeting appearances — the futility of last season makes a streak of 64 carries without a fumble somewhat significant. As a group, the Packers' running backs fumbled once every 38.7 rush attempts in 2015.
Lacy, who failed to top 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, fumbled once every 37.4 carries. Sirmans believes the problem stemmed from his inattention to technique.
“Going back and trying to remember some of Eddie’s deals, some of it was just as simple as the nose of the football being down as he got hit,” Sirmans said this week. “Sometimes as running backs you can get caught with that. That’s why we always stress keeping the ball high and tight and nose of the ball at your chin. I think his was more a result of those things as opposed to just mechanically how he runs the ball.”
Starks, who re-signed with the Packers in March after testing the free-agent market, appears to have a more serious issue. Sirmans believes the mechanics of how Starks carries the football leave him susceptible to fumbling problems.
“Really for him, like you see with a lot of backs, once they really start getting going and making all these strong cuts, what happens is sometimes their arms and hands go away from the body,” Sirmans said. “I always talk about the guys as like a cheetah. When a cheetah is running full speed and he has to make those tight turns to catch his prey, his tail is all over the place because it helps him maintain his balance. You get some running backs like that. When they’re going full speed, they’ve got to make those sharp cuts and their arms and hands start to go all over the place because it helps to keep them in balance. That’s something that James has to fight.
“A lot of times when you’ve got backs of that nature, they can recognize when the defense is coming down on them, so that’s when they’re more apt to cover the ball up. Every time that that happens when he’s running, I point it out to him. ‘Hey, look, the ball is all over the place.'”
Crockett and fullback Aaron Ripkowski shared another anecdote to explain Sirmans’ vigilance in practice. After a running back is tackled or tagged — meaning the play is done — the player sometimes carries the ball with him as he jogs back to the huddle. In a game, they'd simply toss the ball to an official.
And though the play is done, Sirmans continues to watch how his backs handle the football. If they don’t carry it properly, even while walking along the sideline or back to the line of scrimmage, he lets them know during film sessions.
“He wants us to carry the ball the right way — always,” Ripkowski said. “If the ball is in our hand at any moment, he wants us to use all the points of pressure that he talks about, and he really doesn’t want to see us let up no matter what we’re doing.
“Some people get lazy with the ball after a play is over because it really doesn’t matter if you turn it over at that point. In order to train your mind, you have to do it all the time. So that’s really what he talks about.”
It should be said, however, that Starks and Lacy made it through last year’s exhibition games without a miscue, and as a team the Packers fumbled just once in 94 carries. But then the regular season arrived and things went south in a hurry.
With Lacy in better shape, the ball-security issues carry the potential to be a much larger story. On Friday, the 49ers will test the undercurrent to see if it still trickles.