James Starks doesn’t need anyone to tell him to hold onto the football.
The Green Bay Packers running back knows that’s part of the job description. It has been since the Packers drafted him in the sixth round out of Buffalo in 2010. Yet, the problems persist. Starks has four fumbles (two lost) in four December games alone.
His five fumbles (three lost) on 180 touches this season match the number of times he’s put the ball on the ground in his five previous seasons combined. Before this year, Starks had five career fumbles in 470 regular-season touches and lost only one of them.
His most recent flub came on the first play after halftime in Sunday’s 38-8 loss to Arizona. The Cardinals scored two plays later to extend their lead to 24-0. Starks didn’t take another offensive snap the rest of the game with rookie John Crockett spelling Eddie Lacy instead.
“Sometimes you could tend to get a little comfortable,” Starks said. “Or you’re not paying attention, just running and the ball could be low, and you don’t see everybody. That’s kind of what the case has been for me.”
The Packers need Starks to figure it out. Other than the fumbles, the 29-year-old running back is having the best year of his career. He’s rushed for a career-high 577 yards and two touchdowns amidst Eddie Lacy’s ups and downs, and is fifth on the team in receiving with 40 catches for 374 yards.
Players and coaches alike agree in the importance of running the football, especially with all the issues the passing game has had this season. The closest the Packers have come to finding rhythm since the bye week has been when Lacy, Starks and the offensive line are hitting on all cylinders.
The opportunities haven’t been plentiful the past two weeks, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy likes how Lacy has responded since being benched for a curfew violation prior to the Packers’ 27-23 win over Detroit earlier this month. He has 416 rushing yards on 91 carries in his last six games (4.6 yards per carry).
“There are things that went on earlier in the year, and hopefully we’re past all that,” said McCarthy Wednesday morning. “Sometimes, it takes the running game a little bit longer to get going than the passing game. I think history will point to that. Training camps aren’t as long as they used to be. Padded work is cut way back. Those are things that, at least in my opinion, you see early in the season just aren’t very clean.”
There’s a lot on the line for Starks, who turns 30 in February and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. The Packers like his running style and the change of pace he offers behind Lacy, but none of that matters if you don't hold onto the football. His three touches Sunday were his fewest in a game since the regular-season opener in Chicago (two).
So how exactly does Starks hold onto the football and regain the coaches’ confidence?
“Just practicing,” Starks said. “I mean, get in different weird positions and I’ve got to hold on to the ball. It ain’t really like an excuse for why I do it. I’ve just got to get better with it, just practicing holding it high and tight and being responsibility for it and being more cautious of when it’s loose.”