Playing With Fire

The Packers' running game ignited a spark with the debut of James Starks on Sunday. As much as the rookie might have to offer, the unknowns in other areas of his game have opened a whole new set of decisions for coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. Matt Tevsh explains the dilemma.

The decision for the Green Bay Packers would seem as clear as the sky is blue. Give James Starks the lion's share of carries and watch the production go up for the running game.

That was the case last Sunday, when the rookie back shared the offensive spotlight for the Packers along with receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings and quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a 34-16 victory over the 49ers. Starks ran for 73 yards on 18 carries in his debut after missing all of training camp and 11 games of the regular season while recovering from a hamstring injury.

By giving Starks the majority of carries against San Francisco, the indication is that he has something more to offer than just being a special teams player or a backup on the depth chart, even for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Now comes the tough part for coach Mike McCarthy — weighing the risk-reward factor.

While Starks' performance was far from legendary, it did provide a glimpse of something unique to the active roster at the running back position. Because of that, Starks could be hard to ignore if McCarthy is serious about playing December football in a more traditional sense.

The Packers are undoubtedly a pass-first team. They are tied for 22rd in the league in carries (305), a ranking that would be lower if not for an abnormal number of rushes from Rodgers (second-most among quarterbacks). They are also tied for 21st in percentage of rushing plays (41.7 percent) and rank 25th in rushing yards on first-and-10.

Brandon Jackson (11.3 carries per game, 43.9 yards per game) has been the primary ball-carrier ,with John Kuhn (5.7 carries, 19.8 yards) also serving as a primary halfback in certain situations. While both have their limitations as runners, Starks has the makings of giving the Packers some much-needed explosion. His size (6-2, 218), speed and power are a rare combination.

But still, one game can cause overexcitement. There are serious risks in giving Starks more plays. He is as raw as any player on the team, having missed not only most of this season but his last collegiate season, as well. Coaches can preach about what he has done in practice all they want, but at this stage in the season, the Packers can find comfort in knowing what they have with Jackson and Kuhn, and to a lesser extent, Dimitri Nance.

Starks could easily get Rodgers killed by missing a blitz pickup and the season would essentially be over. He has limited game experience doing such things.

Jackson, on the other hand, is one of the most dependable in the league at blitz pickup. And Kuhn is right there, too.

Starks easily could fumble in a critical situation that could damage the Packers' playoff chances. The coaches have spoke about his tendency to run with a high pad level and thus leave himself open to big hits.

Jackson has just one fumble this year (and only three in 396 career touches). Kuhn, likewise, has just one fumble (the only one among his 108 career touches).

Starks is also an unknown in the passing game, though his 127 receptions in three collegiate seasons is a positive sign.

Jackson has become a weapon in the screen game (and is tied for fourth on the team with 36 catches). And Kuhn has proven to be a solid red zone target when called upon (eight touchdowns in four seasons with the Packers).

At some point, Starks deserves a chance to show he can do all of these things in a game situation. But is now that time? With so much on the line for the Packers? Can they risk giving more plays to a rookie back over dependable veterans?

The easy answer would be to find a role for all three backs and play to their strengths. But there are inherent problems with that solution for McCarthy, including fielding questions from the media as to who is first on the depth chart.

"For the 1,200th time, there really are no depth charts," he said on Monday. "Brandon Jackson has done an excellent job and will continue to do so. I think I stated this after the game, I'd really like to get into more of a rotation now that I know I have three halfbacks. Dimitri Nance is someone that really hasn't had the opportunity that James had (Sunday), and he's done a lot of positive things since he's been here on the practice field. You have to be careful when you rotate backs like that in the game because I think it was very apparent when (number) 44 went into the game we were running the ball. That's something we have to obviously plan against as we move forward. I would like to have some type of rotation of all three of those backs, but Brandon is still our main guy. He's done it all year. As I've stated before, I don't think it's in our best interests with as much football as we have in front of us to sit there and run Brandon Jackson 25 times a game."

To make a rotation work, every back will have to show proficiency on gameday in all facets of the game. McCarthy believes he has backs that can do that. Where Starks fits in the next few weeks is a delicate matter.

"I don't really want to get into specifics of how we're going to use each one," said McCarthy. "That's really what the games are for and for our opponents to plan against. We would not put an individual in the game that we did not feel could play both run and pass because it would be a one-week or a two-week shot. Because you just can't line up and telegraph what you're doing based on who's in the game. But James can play both in the run and pass."

McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin have a history of showing that they can work skill position players interchangeably on offense, especially in sub packages, and hardly miss a beat. They have done it over the past two seasons with tight ends and wide receivers and be able to produce a level of consistency among the best offenses in the league.

With Starks, however, the picture is a little cloudier. As much promise as he brings, he also brings the potential for disaster. Whether or not McCarthy wants to take that risk with a team that makes its money through the air anyway could have a large impact on the rest of the season.


Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave publisher Bill Huber a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.


Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


Packer Report Top Stories