Dougherty: Shields, Starks made marks

Pete Dougherty
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Sam Shields celebrates an interception for a touchdown against San Francisco in a playoff game at Candlestick Park on Jan. 12, 2013.

Last week the Green Bay Packers without fanfare bid farewell to two more players from their Super Bowl champion team of 2010.

The release of Sam Shields and James Starks leaves the Packers with only five players under contract who played in Super Bowl XLV six years ago: Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, Bryan Bulaga and Mason Crosby.

Nothing unusual there. The NFL is a young man’s game with high roster turnover. Six years is a lifetime in this league.

But I couldn’t let Shields and Starks slip out of town without recognizing their unusual stories and crucial roles in the Packers’ 13th world championship.

Shields was a rare find – an undrafted rookie in ’10 who took on a prominent role as a rookie and became one of the team’s best players in the coming years. Starks’ career was far more modest, but the Packers probably wouldn’t have made that title-winning playoff run without him.

We’ll start with Shields, whose ascent up the depth charts was one of the most stunning I’ve seen since I started covering the Packers in 1993.

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He went undrafted in ’10 for two reasons: He’d switched from receiver to cornerback only for his final year in college at Miami, and he’d been arrested for marijuana possession five weeks before the ’10 draft. Still, he was a priority free agent because he had a coveted asset: speed (4.30-second 40 at his campus workout).

Coming in he was a developmental prospect who might make the roster as a rookie as a special-teams cover man. Then came an eye-opening training camp. My lingering perception is that he had an interception every-other day. I went back in the archives, and it turned out he had three in team drills in the first 13 days of camp.

“Every day you see him make a play out there,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said at the time.

The Packers needed a No. 3 cornerback to go with Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. In five weeks, Shields rose from the bottom of the depth chart to win that job.

By the Super Bowl, he’d proven to be a first-class athlete and a starting-caliber player. If that draft had been held over, he’d have been a first-round pick. So with the help of a persuasive pitch from scout Alonzo Highsmith, who played in college at Miami, the Packers in effect got an extra first-round selection for basically a penny ante ($7,500 signing bonus).

But most memorable from that season were his two interceptions in the NFC championship game at Chicago.

One took points off the board in the final minute of the first half on a deep ball to Johnny Knox inside the Packers’ 10. The other clinched the victory in the red zone in the last minute with the Packers protecting a seven-point lead.

I went back and watched them, and the first one stood out as vintage Shields. Among the things you have to remember is that Knox was exceptionally fast – he ran a 4.34 40 at the scouting combine in ’09.

Shields ran with him step for step, and then turned and made the reaching catch. Most cornerbacks’ athleticism would have been so taxed running with Knox that they at best would have broken up the pass. But Shields still was in his comfort zone and plucked the ball.

The Packers don’t have a lot of thoroughbreds, and he was one. They’re going to miss that, as last season showed. It’s hard not to wonder how differently their 2016 goes if his season (and presumably career) hadn’t ended because of a concussion in Week 1.

One NFL scout I talked to this week ranked Shields among the top 15 to 20 cornerbacks in the league before his injury. Without him, the Packers’ cornerback play cratered. Replacing him has to be job No. 1 for general manager Ted Thompson this offseason.

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Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) tried to cut around defender outside linebacker Nigel Bradham (53) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

As for Starks, he wasn’t a playmaker of Shields’ caliber, but he’s an example of the difference a role player can make at the right position and time.

The Packers’ biggest problem in 2010 was their running game (No. 24 in yards, No. 27 in yards per rush). Ryan Grant’s season ended in Week 1 because of an ankle injury, and with Brandon Jackson at halfback, the Packers’ were a one-dimensional passing offense. That was good enough against many teams but wasn’t going to cut it for the playoffs.

Starks, in the meantime, was a no-show as a rookie sixth-round pick because of a hamstring injury that sidelined him from August through December. He was inactive for two of the last three regular-season games.

But then a desperate coach Mike McCarthy turned to the rookie for the playoffs, and out of nowhere Starks' physical, all-elbows-and-knees running style gave the Packers just enough of a run game to keep defenses honest. He gained 315 yards in four postseason games, which projects to a 1,260-yard season. His 123 yards in the wild-card round at Philadelphia were a big factor in that 21-16 win.

Starks played six more seasons and seemed to be hurt as often as not – he missed 36 games, or the equivalent of 2 ¼ years. He'll be 31 later this month, and it was time for the Packers to move on.

But McCarthy and Thompson probably wouldn’t have their Super Bowl rings without him.

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