GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s only Week 3 of the regular season, but the Green Bay Packers are already on Plan C at running back. With DuJuan Harris on injured reserve and Eddie Lacy recovering from a concussion, the Packers are turning to James Starks as their new starter in the backfield.
After Starks’ 132-yard rushing performance Sunday against Washington, though, Plan C doesn’t look all that bad for Green Bay.
“James Starks is definitely someone I look at as a starter and the ability to run as many times in a football game as needed,” coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “James will get the starting opportunity this week.”
The Packers’ roster has gotten thin at running back. Adding in the hamstring injury to fullback John Kuhn, Green Bay only has two healthy options: Starks and rookie Johnathan Franklin. But Starks didn’t get the starting nod from McCarthy this week simply due to numbers. Even though Lacy hasn’t been ruled out yet for the Week 3 matchup in Cincinnati, Starks earned the spot with a career-best game.
“James has been a good football player for us around here, and this has been a real challenge for him with Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin coming in,” McCarthy said Sunday. “He’s just been a pro. I think he’s had clearly his best training camp, so this is really no surprise. He was just given an opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
It’s not as if Starks has never had a good game before. However, it has been a while.
Starks looked like the present and the future of the Packers’ rushing attack during his rookie season in 2010. He started all four playoff games that year — including the Super Bowl — and rushed for 315 postseason yards.
“I would say (Sunday’s game was) more of a reminder; we know what he’s capable of,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Like most players, I’m sure he’s a confidence player. The more opportunities he gets when he knows he’s the guy and he’s going to get a lot of reps, that can only give you more confidence. As a quarterback, I feel that. When I know it’s my show, I’m going to play a lot more confidently.
“When he knew he was going to get the bulk of the carries after Eddie went down, he knew that he just had to relax and play because it wasn’t going to be his last carry in the game. Whereas if a guy’s splitting time or a backup, he might be worried about, ‘This carry has to be my best carry or I’m not going to get another chance.’ He had his chances and made the most of them.”
For Starks, this is a chance to prove that his true talent level is more like the 2010 version of himself and less like the past two seasons. Injuries were the main reason for the dropoff in his production, but images of Starks’ promising rookie year faded when he wasn’t able to build on that success.
“Like I said last year, I wasn’t really satisfied with what I did,” Starks said. “I’m a hard worker no matter what. I wasn’t satisfied with the work I put in. I felt like I let my team down, my teammates, and I wanted to come back in the best shape of my life and show them I’m willing to work for whatever I get.”
Starks rushed for just 255 yards last season, which was less than half of what he had in 2011. He also wasn’t used in either 2012 playoff game.
“My play in general, I didn’t feel … that’s not expectations that I hold for myself,” Starks said. “I got high expectations for myself and performing at a high level, so I don’t feel like I did the best that I could have. So I wanted to come out this year and be a better player, stay healthy and contribute how I can contribute.”
But the work has now paid off for Starks. He’s been healthy so far this season and, as McCarthy noted, put together the best training camp of his four-year career. But even with that, Rodgers looked at Starks as “definitely on the bubble” when roster cutdowns were made less than three weeks ago.
“He kept a really good attitude and that’s impressive to the guys,” Rodgers said Sunday. “I’m not sure if that was the deciding factor or if it was the upside we saw in him or the run he had in 2010 when he played so well. But James is a guy who’s gotten better every year.”
Starks wouldn’t admit whether he was nervous about the prospect of being released. He wasn’t paying attention to media projections because “that could kind of mess you up.” But after the Packers drafted Lacy in the second round and traded up to select Franklin in the fourth round on a team that already had Harris and 2011 third-round pick Alex Green, Starks would’ve had good reason to worry.
“He’s had a challenge, or some adversity this year with drafting two guys and not knowing really during camp,” starting left guard Josh Sitton said. “But you weren’t able to tell that during camp. He was still working his (butt) off, never had his head down, still the same old guy. (He) kept working, had a great camp. That was something that really jumped out to us. He had a really good camp and we knew that he could come in there and do a really great job for us if somebody else isn’t in there.”
Starks didn’t quite agree with the positive assessments of his teammates and coaches. While they praised his efforts, he would only go as far as to say he “did pretty well” in the win over Washington, adding, “I can continue to get better.”
When the Packers’ offense is introduced Sunday in Cincinnati, Starks will be a regular-season starter for the fifth time in his NFL career. He last started a game in Week 12 of the 2012 season, but with all the events that took place in Green Bay since then, the odds sure seemed against Starks that he would ever have this chance in a Packers uniform again.
“I never give up,” Starks said. “I mean, I’m just playing for myself, playing for my family. These guys are my family. I’m going to do all I can to come back and be the best I can be to help the team win.”