The Green Bay Packers have once again anointed James Starks as their starting running back.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy confirmed before Wednesday’s practice the sixth-year veteran will be the featured back this Sunday against Detroit despite Eddie Lacy checking out fine from the groin injury that sidelined him in the third quarter of Sunday’s 37-29 loss to Carolina.
The move, which has been in motion for weeks, brings Starks’ career full circle. The featured back in the Packers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2010, Starks’ first three NFL seasons were mired in injury. By 2013, it even appeared his job was in jeopardy during training camp.
The Packers returned DuJuan Harris, and drafted Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the second and fourth round, respectively. Yet, Harris (knee) and Franklin (neck) both suffered season-ending injuries and Starks was again in the rotation. He's stayed relatively healthy ever since.
Starks, 29, was productive enough as Lacy’s backup in 2013 to earn a two-year, $3.2 million contract in March 2014. Now, he’s thrown back into the starting role, looking to spark the league’s 24th-ranked offense.
“You learn more, experienced, (I’ve) seen it,” Starks said Wednesday. “Just knowing to be more valuable, make sure you're there at all times. So just getting a repetition of a lot and seeing a lot and knowing the system and everything like that, I think that slowed the game down for me."
Starks has been more productive than Lacy this season with 78 carries for 334 yards and a touchdown. The improvements he's made as a pass-catcher have him fourth on the team with 19 catches for 167 yards and two scores.
The 6-foot-2, 218-pound running back jumped to the forefront after rushing for 112 yards on 10 carries with his first two-touchdown performance in a surprise start last month against San Diego. Coincidentally, it was only the sixth time in his NFL career Starks has started a regular-season game.
The fast start has Starks on pace for a career high in carries (156), rushing yards (668), catches (38) receiving yards (334) and touchdowns (six). The talent hasn’t been the issue with Starks as much as durability. For that reason, it’s likely Lacy will still get plenty of work regardless of the job descriptions.
“You need multiple backs healthy and solid backs to win in this league,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s earned some opportunities and he’s done a great job on screens the entire year. He’s a very good running back. He has a very good attitude every single day. He’s one of my favorite teammates, just the way he carries himself and prepares. He’s earned an opportunity.”
McCarthy made it clear he wants to establish the run better in the second half of the season than the Packers did in the first. Not counting quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ scrambling, the Packers are averaging only about 20 rushing attempts a game – down from nearly 25 attempts per game last season.
It presents a golden opportunity for Starks, who’ll turn 30 in February and scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Those two things don’t typically make for a good combination, but he continues to look explosive out of the backfield and worked hard to improve as a pass-catcher.
Despite the cosmetic changes, Starks views the Packers’ backfield situation in the same light it’s always been.
“Me and Eddie, it’s still a tandem, a one-two punch and that’s how it’s going to continue to be,” Starks said.