GREEN BAY, Wis. — All season long, a carousel of running backs spun in and out of the Packers’ offense. From James Starks to Cedric Benson to Alex Green to Ryan Grant to DuJuan Harris, there were plenty of serviceable players for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to hand the ball.
That variety has its advantages, but most teams aren’t going to carry five running backs with relatively equal talent from one season into the next. This offseason, general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will have to make the difficult decision of which players among those five are worth hanging onto. Grant, a two-time 1,200-yard rusher who was re-signed late in the season only after injuries hit, probably isn’t in the discussion. From there, things get murky.
Starks had yet another injury-plagued year beginning with turf toe in preseason that cost him the starting job. But the soon-to-be 27-year-old who helped Green Bay win Super Bowl XLV wants another season with the Packers to prove himself.
“I’m going to come back way better; I know I am,” Starks said Sunday. “That’s my goal, that’s my mentality this whole offseason. I’m going to be the best back to come out here and just play, play, play. I’m going to be one of the best backs to come out of injury and be healthy. That’s my goal.
“I’m going to be better. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Six weeks after Starks returned from turf toe, he suffered a knee injury that didn’t allow him to get back on the field, though he was close by playoff time. As has happened all too often in Starks’ career, he had started to become an important part in Green Bay’s offense again — carrying the ball 25 times in a Week 11 win in Detroit — right before another injury struck.
“It’s upsetting, but stuff happens,” Starks said. “It is frustrating. I will make sure I’m better by the time I come back next year.”
Starks also believes he can shed his injury-prone label next season.
“I’m going to be a little smoother, I’m going to be smarter,” Starks said. “Some hits I took were unnecessary, just looking at film and stuff like that. I ain’t going to come back and be no different. I’m still going to be a tough runner and just going to minimize those unnecessary hits that might have made me get some injuries somewhere.”
It was Starks’ preseason injury that led the Packers to sign Benson, a veteran free agent coming off three straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Bengals. Benson immediately became Green Bay’s starting running back and quickly earned Rodgers’ support. However, a Week 5 foot injury ended his season.
Now, at age 30, Benson also wants another season with the Packers.
“I thought I fit the formula well enough to be very successful and to contribute to the offense,” he said. “Hopefully upstairs (Green Bay’s front office) feels the same way. A contending team and a team that takes pride in being precise and executing and doing things correct; I’m all for it.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from teammates and some of the staff. But they’re not the ones that make those decisions.”
Benson underwent surgery on his left foot in late November and is still in a walking boot, but he has no doubts he’ll be healed in time for training camp.
“We’re just waiting for things to settle down,” Benson said. “I feel great. I actually need to slow down. I always want to do more. I want to rush myself to run.”
It was a disappointing season for Green, the Packers’ third-round pick in 2011. Following Benson’s injury, and with Starks still recovering, Green got a chance to prove himself as the team’s featured running back. He was given the ball 20-plus times in three consecutive weeks but didn’t have a per-rush average above 3.0 in any of those games.
In the Packers’ playoff loss to San Francisco, despite being healthy, Green was on the gameday inactive list. He tore his ACL midway through his 2011 rookie season, and it can take some players a full season of playing to regain full strength and quickness. So it’s possible the injury was a contributing factor to Green’s struggles, but it also leaves him vulnerable to being out of the Packers’ future plans.
The biggest backfield surprise of the season, though, came late in the year when Harris, a recent practice-squad call-up, became the team’s most impressive running back in 2012. Harris ended up starting four games, including both playoff games, and looks like a player who could be counted on in a significant role next season.
The question for Thompson and McCarthy now becomes whether Harris, who is just 5-foot-9, showed enough in his 62 carries for the Packers to put their faith in him. Perhaps he becomes the full-time starter with Green or Starks waiting behind him in case he falters. Maybe the team goes with Benson, the steady veteran, and keeps two of the younger running backs behind him.
But the answer might be that none of them are starting-caliber running backs, at least not on a team that has a legitimate chance of winning the Super Bowl every year as long as Rodgers is healthy. If so, it might be time for Thompson to invest one of his top two draft choices in a running back, a strategy that he has shown to be somewhat averse to.
In order for the Packers to turn from contenders back into champions, a consistently strong ground game needs to be established. Rodgers didn’t have as many big throws this season because most opposing teams dared Green Bay to beat them with the running game and short passing routes. That’s why the decision of whether to draft a running back or plan around Harris, Starks, Green and Benson is one that could define the success of the Packers’ 2013 season.