Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talks about the early bye week and the 13 straight games ahead. (Oct. 5, 2016)
GREEN BAY - By this point last season, when the Green Bay Packers were 4-0 and the offense had yet to erode, running back James Starks reaffirmed his worth as a sturdy and dependable backup, even at age 29.
In Week 2, starter Eddie Lacy dropped out with an ankle injury, and Starks came on in relief. He carried 20 times for 95 yards and diced the Seattle Seahawks’ vaunted defense into chunks.
Starks, who was in the final year of his contract at the time, had carried just twice during the season opener the week before. He would carry 17 times on Monday Night Football the week after. In between he smiled and shrugged, the ordinary life of a career backup.
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“I think my motivation is always the same,” Starks said this week. “Try to make the most out of whatever I get and then make it go from there.”
This year, his seventh in the league, Starks has been asked to make the most of a picked-clean carcass. Despite a fresh contract and 993 yards of total offense in his back pocket — something Lacy could not match — Starks received just 12 carries through the first three games and turned them into nine meager yards. The best season of his career, it seems, has given way to his most irrelevant start.
But Starks, a proverbial smiler and reticent interviewee, insists that he is perfectly content. Whatever role he has or doesn’t have suits him just fine — promise.
“Any running back will want more touches, but I’m good with the touches I receive,” Starks said. “When they call on me, I’m there. I think it’s just getting in the roll of things. It’s a long season. I’ve just got to make sure I’m constantly ready, continue to prepare how I prepare and continue to get better.”
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The inverse nature of the backfield means that Lacy’s workload has grown as Starks’ carries dwindled. A clear-cut starter, Lacy carried the ball 43 times for 214 yards before the Packers’ early bye. His healthy average of 5.0 yards per carry rationalizes, to an extent, the decision to ride Lacy for 72 percent of runs by players not named Aaron Rodgers.
Starks is next in line at 20 percent, and wide receivers Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery fill out the rest.
Still, the decision by Mike McCarthy and his staff to prioritize Lacy was a risky one given the divergent paths of the two running backs last season. Where Lacy was sluggish and overweight, Starks began to thrive. He enjoyed the most productive year of his career on the precipice of 30 years old (148 carries for 601 yards and two touchdowns). The jolt he provided the passing game — 43 catches for 392 yards and three touchdowns — helped keep a struggling offense afloat.
“All running backs aren’t the same, so obviously they have different strengths and abilities,” center JC Tretter said. “But offensive line-wise you block it the way you’re supposed to block and they’ll find the holes. They’ll do what they need to do. You don’t need to do anything for them. If they do their job and we do our job, we can easily get two guys going.”
Tretter’s assertion echoes comments from McCarthy and offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett, both of whom expressed a desire to run the ball more frequently after the loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The plan, according to Bennett, included both Lacy and Starks as a legitimate one-two punch. The result, as it played out against the Lions, featured 17 carries for Lacy and just one for Starks.
His statistics are jarring. Of Starks’ 12 carries this season, 25 percent have gone for negative yardage. He has yet to pick up a first down on a running play. Ten of his 12 carries have gained two yards or fewer. His longest run moving forward (five yards) covers less ground than his longest run moving backward (minus six yards).
An inkling of a bright spot: It’s still not the worst stretch of Starks’ career. He carried 10 times for seven yards during a three-game stretch in November of 2014.
“I just haven’t really — I don’t know,” Starks said. “As I look at the film, I think when you look at most of the carries it’s more so short yardage, stacked boxes and stuff. I think I do my job as far as getting the first downs and things like that. But there’s some reads I feel like I could have done better after looking at film and stuff like that. As the season gets longer and things amp up, it will be a lot better.”
Speaking on Monday, the first day after the bye, Starks squashed the idea that frustration had entered his mind. He spoke repeatedly about the length of a football season and the remaining games in which things could improve.
The circle of reporters finally vanished, and that’s when Starks’ real emotions poked through.
“I just pray on it and everything will be good,” Starks said. “God will put me in every situation. He always has, always looked out for me. So I just pray.
“When you’re hoping for something and it doesn’t go your way, I think it will get you down. You know what I’m saying? So I’ve always been a player like, ‘If it’s given to me, I try to make the most out of it.’ And that’s about it.”