Looking Back/Ahead: Running Back

We review 2013 with our good, bad, surprise and grade, plus take a look at what's ahead in 2014. The return of the running game also meant a revival in the passing game. Questions loom, however, with James Starks and John Kuhn headed toward free agency.

In Part 4 of our season-ending review of the Green Bay Packers, we look back and ahead at running backs.

DEPTH CHART: 2013

Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Kahlil Bell and John Kuhn. (Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris on injured reserve. Orwin Smith on practice squad).

UNDER CONTRACT: 2014

Lacy, Franklin, Harris, Smith. (Starks, Bell and Kuhn are free agents.)

2013 REVIEW

The grade: B. For the first time since Ryan Grant's back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009, the Packers had an honest-to-goodness running game.

Before the draft, sources told Packer Report that Le'Veon Bell was their back of choice. When Bell went off the board to Pittsburgh, the Packers traded back and still got Lacy. Lacy, who was named the Pro Football Writers of America's Rookie of the Year on Tuesday, set Packers rookie records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and helped the team rush for 133.5 yards per game — good for seventh in the league and the team's sixth-best season since the 1970 merger.

After not having a 100-yard rusher in 44 consecutive regular-season games, the Packers were tied for second in the league with six 100-yard performances. They became the first team since the 1989 Redskins to have three different running backs rush for 100 yards in the first five games of the season.

The Packers emphasize ball security and pass protection as much as rushing production. Franklin (two), Lacy and Starks combined for four fumbles. Lacy was more good than bad in pass protection, though the always-sound Kuhn continued to play a lot on third down.

The good: The Packers finished seventh in the league in rushing, their best since finishing third in 2003. From 2004 through 2012, the Packers' average ranking was 20.7. Of their 2,136 rushing yards, a second-ranked 1,127 came on first down. Their 4.65 yards per carry ranked fourth. Starks averaged 5.54 per pop, with six carries of at least 20 yards.

With the hard-charging Lacy and the slashing Starks, defenses no longer could sit back in coverage to take away the Aaron Rodgers-led passing game. Rodgers finished second with 8.74 yards per attempt, almost a full yard better than his 2012 average of 7.78.

Moreover, the Packers ranked third in the league with a 63.0 percent success rate on third-and-1 running plays.

The bad: The backfield's four fumbles ranked right around the middle of the pack. Two of those fumbles were lost, and they both came back to haunt the team. Lacy's fumble at San Francisco in Week 1 earned him a seat on the bench after the 49ers turned it into a touchdown in a 34-28 loss. Franklin's fumble was returned for a touchdown in the pivotal play of a 34-30 loss at Cincinnati in Week 3.

The surprise: Franklin had a forgettable rookie season. With Lacy joining holdovers Starks, Harris and Alex Green, it was a surprise the Packers used a fourth-round choice on Franklin. Franklin was an electric three-down player at UCLA but didn't show any of that during a forgettable training camp and preseason. Thrust into the game at Cincinnati, however, Franklin flashed open-field skills and breakaway speed. But his fumble in that game took him out of the rotation, and he practically fell off the face of the earth when he fumbled again three weeks later against Cleveland. In his final five games before a season-ending neck injury, Franklin played two snaps on offense and never touched the ball. He also was abysmal during his trial-by-fire as a kickoff returner.

The coach says: "It was not a surprise but it was nice to see (Lacy) develop. He became the type of runner we thought he was. That showed up on tape on Sundays. His toughness, I didn't know much about. He showed me a lot of heart this year coming back from injuries that he did, playing through them and playing well through them. His knowledge of the game, that was impressive for him to pick up protections as quick as he did. It was a positive year for him and a great year for him to build on." — RBs coach Alex Van Pelt

2014 LOOKAHEAD

The next step for Lacy is to improve in pass protection and, somehow, find that fine line between fighting for extra yardage but avoiding needless punishment. At this rate, his first contract might be his last contract with the Packers.

Who will join Lacy in the backfield? Will Starks return or will he chase money and a bigger opportunity on offense? Had Starks gotten enough touches, he would have led the league in yards per carry. As it was, he posted the Packers' best average since Eddie Lee Ivery averaged 5.58 in 1984. Will Kuhn return or will he accept a sizable pay cut after having a $2.57 million cap number in 2013, his final season under contract?

Coming off of injuries are Harris, who was sensational when given an opportunity late in 2012, and Franklin. Had he been healthy, Harris would have been the No. 1 back at the start of training camp. Franklin needs to tighten up his game, given the Packers' focus on pass protection and ball security. If everyone's healthy, Lacy, Harris and Franklin provide intriguing diversity as a one-two-three punch.


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


Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


Packer Report Top Stories