Based on early training camp depth charts and projections headed into the regular season, up to one-third and possibly even one-half of all the teams in the league could be splitting carries between two running backs.
One of those teams could be the Packers, with two backs — Ryan Grant and James Starks — who have been sharing carries on the No. 1 unit during training camp. That was the case again on Thursday, when, during different down-and-distance situations in the team portions of practice, the Packers used Grant and Starks interchangeably.
"It's a long season, 16 games, carrying the ball 20 to 25 times a game, that's a lot for one individual to go through," coach Mike McCarthy said last Saturday about using a tandem in the backfield. "I hope to be spreading the ball around at every position. That's my goal."
Being a part-time featured back would be a change for Grant, who was the Packers' clear-cut No. 1 runner for two-and-a-half seasons before a serious ankle injury in 2010 sidelined him for all but one game. Before that, however, he carried the ball 282 times in 2009 and 312 in 2008, topping 1,200 yards each season. The next closest running back to Grant in carries in each of those years was the recently retired Ahman Green in 2009 with just 41 carries and Brandon Jackson in 2008 with 45.
Even though he says he's 100 percent healthy and ready to go, Grant is not likely to reach those carry totals this season. Asked by Packer Report on Thursday why he thinks many teams are going away from a using a lone featured back he said, "Teams are trying to adjust and change with the game. If that's the way it goes, then that's the way it goes. More points are being scored and offenses are more spread out. Teams in general are just not running the ball as much. The layout of how the game is played has changed."
While sharing carries can keep a back fresh and have long-term career benefits, there can be some drawbacks — like not being able to get into the flow of the game.
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Nobody got more out of their personnel last year than McCarthy, who led his team to a Super Bowl despite getting slammed with injuries. At the running back position, Grant was lost after the first game, leaving the Packers little to turn to. At the time, Starks was on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a hamstring injury, so the Packers used Jackson (190 carries), fullback John Kuhn (84 carries) and free agent pickup Dmitri Nance (36 carries) to manage the running game. Starks returned during the final month of the regular season, and in the playoffs, he took over almost exclusively, grabbing 87 percent of the running back carries (a total of 81 rushes for 315 yards, which led all NFL backs in the postseason).
The promise of Starks, a second-year back who muscled up to around 225 pounds in the offseason, and even rookie Alex Green, give the Packers plenty of options running the ball if not questions about pass protection and the third-down running back spot. While Grant could look at the other backs as challengers, he is keeping an upbeat attitude and said the running back group is meshing together.
"I think we'll do a good job," said Grant. "I'm still going to be that leader in this backfield and I'm going to lead us in this offense with my experience and performance for what we do on the field and make sure that the expectations are kept high. We're going to take this thing as a backfield and run with it and protect the quarterback. We set the pace of the game running the ball. We set the pace on offense. We can help control the clock and do a lot of things. Nothing has changed from that standpoint. We're not trying to reinvent anything in this backfield, even with a new (position) coach (Jerry Fontenot). I'm going to do everything I can to bring these young guys along and we're going to learn from each other."
McCarthy never has utilized tandem featured backs, unless necessitated by injuries, since coming to Green Bay, primarily because he never has had two backs like Grant and Starks at the same time. Before Grant, Green was the man, but this year's backfield health and talent is putting the Packers in line to join a league trend.
"When people say, ‘too many players,' I say you can never have too many players," said Grant. "It's not my job to worry about how many players there are. It's my job to make sure that when I'm on the field I perform. The same with James. And we're going to do that."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org