GREEN BAY, Wis. — When the Packers needed one of their running backs to string together a few successful rushes in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, coach Mike McCarthy chose to give those opportunities to James Starks.
In McCarthy’s mind, Starks had outplayed Alex Green to that point in the game. Starks had the 22-yard rushing touchdown late in the third quarter, and when handed the ball on the next series, he continued to deliver. On Green Bay’s 18-play drive in the fourth quarter, Starks ran it six times for 24 yards and caught a pass for seven yards.
“I liked the combination of the running backs and, more important, I liked what James Starks did,” McCarthy said after the game. “I thought he stepped up. I thought James was a little cut above today and that’s why I went with him in the fourth quarter.”
But after evaluating the film from that game the next day, McCarthy decided not to make Starks his featured running back permanently. Instead, the Packers will continue splitting snaps and carries evenly between Starks and Green.
“We’ll stay the course, probably,” McCarthy said at his Monday press conference. “As we game plan, we’re going to stay the course the way we’ve gone. But if you feel one’s going a little better than the other, maybe we’ll lean that way. I leaned that way a little bit with James. I thought James ran the ball very hard.”
Starks finished with 66 yards on 15 carries (4.4 average) in the win over Minnesota, with Green rushing for 58 yards on 12 attempts (4.8 average).
Green started the game at running back and was in on first and second down on the Packers’ opening drive, with fullback John Kuhn entering for third-down plays. Starks was only on the field for one play in that series, and that was to give Green a moment of rest following back-to-back carries for 14 yards.
“I thought Alex running the ball did a very good job,” McCarthy said. “He graded out a little better on video than I might have been aware of during the game.”
On Green Bay’s second series, however, the Packers began with Starks in the backfield on first and second down, with Kuhn again playing in most third-down situations. On that 12-play drive, Green eventually got in and quickly contributed with a 12-yard catch.
But for McCarthy, the duo of Starks and Green is viewed as a better option for the offense than solely featuring one over the other.
“The complement is the balance we have with those guys,” McCarthy said. “If we can keep them both around 12-15 (carries), that’s a good day. Anytime you run the ball over 30 attempts, good things happen.”
McCarthy has been juggling this difficult decision since veteran running back Cedric Benson suffered a Lisfranc foot injury in Week 5. After Benson was carted to the locker room on Oct. 7 in Indianapolis, Green immediately began to take all of the available snaps. And it didn’t take long for Green to make an impact play, breaking out for a 41-yard gain in the second half of that game against the Colts.
Though Starks wasn’t playing much at that point in the season, he was fully recovered from the turf toe injury he suffered in the first preseason game. Green was simply the preferred choice at running back, and McCarthy showed his dedication to the 2011 third-round pick by giving him the ball 20-plus times in three consecutive games. But the results weren’t there, with Green averaging just 2.5 yards per carry in that span on 62 rushing attempts.
Those numbers became the evidence that led to the end of Green’s days as the Packers’ starting running back, at least for this season. In Week 9, McCarthy implemented the dual-back system, but then after the Week 10 bye, Starks became the official starter and featured running back . . . for one game.
Just as Green hadn’t, Starks didn’t perform well enough in that role for McCarthy to stick with him. Starks gained 74 yards on 25 carries (3.0 average) in a win at Detroit on Nov. 18, while Green didn’t touch the ball once. McCarthy criticized his own play-calling in that game for the decision to not give Green a chance and has since corrected it by reverting back to the Starks-Green duo.
It’s apparent that McCarthy is waiting for one of his young running backs to seize an opportunity when given the ball. Not that either has been overly disappointing this season, because both have displayed a high level of talent on occasion, but neither has shown the ability yet to be an every-down player capable of doing what McCarthy requires.
McCarthy isn’t opposed to having just one running back get all the carries, though it may seem like it at times. Sure, the Packers split carries between Starks and Ryan Grant last season. Yes, McCarthy has stated that he doesn’t need a 1,000-yard rusher to put together a good offense. But McCarthy proved early this season when Benson was healthy that if he has the right player, he wants to hand the ball off to that one player. Now the question is whether Green or Starks can become that player before the playoffs begin in one month.