As Eddie Lacy deals with whatever has sent his season tumbling and fumbling into oblivion, he’s got a pretty good role model to lean on in James Starks.
As a rookie in 2010, Starks was sidelined for most of the season because of a hamstring injury. When finally healthy, Starks delivered throughout a playoff run that culminated in victory in Super Bowl XLV.
In 2013, the Packers drafted Lacy in the second round. With Lacy filling the role as the long-sought-after featured back, Starks made the most of his 89 carries by averaging an NFL-high 5.5 yards per carry. In 2014, Starks played in all 16 games for the first time but was given less than six carries per game. When the offense needed a spark in the NFC Championship Game, Starks burst into the open field with a 32-yard gain to open the fourth quarter.
The message: Starks has continued to smile, continued to work and continued to stay ready. Now, with Starks replacing Lacy in the starting lineup, it is Lacy who must keep himself ready.
“Just practicing hard,” Starks said. “I mean, repetition and trying to do things the right way each and every time, I think that’s been working for me.”
Through that attention to detail, Starks has been ready whenever his number’s been called. After getting just two carries in the opener at Chicago, Starks stepped in for an injured Lacy and carried 20 times for 95 yards against Seattle in Week 2. After getting just five carries vs. St. Louis in Week 5, Starks got the start vs. San Diego and rushed for 112 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown. Starks got his chance on the second series vs. Carolina last week and had runs of 4, 9 and 15 yards to set up a touchdown. When Lacy later fumbled and was benched, Starks had three big gains on screens on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
“I say it all the time, I’m ready no matter how many carries I get, no matter what time in the game I come in,” Starks said. “I’m just trying to play football. That’s what I love, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Starks’ road back to the top of the depth chart is as much about perseverance as it is talent. After his breakout playoff run as a rookie, Starks led the team in rushing while splitting carries with Ryan Grant in 2011. Starks was set to be the featured back in 2012, but a preseason toe injury necessitated the signing of Cedric Benson. In a December game against Minnesota, Starks had a 22-yard touchdown run and appeared poised to seize control of the position until sustaining a knee injury. By the time he was healthy, the Packers had moved forward with DuJuan Harris and Grant. In 2013, the Packers drafted Lacy. After leading the league with his 5.5-yard average, he attracted the interest of a few teams in free agency but decided to stay with Green Bay on a two-year deal.
Nonetheless, Starks wouldn’t say if being back atop the depth chart held any special meaning.
“I’m always excited to play football. That’s never going to change,” he said. “I’m excited if I get one play, two plays. That doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just happy to be here, happy for the opportunity to play football period. That’s all.”
It’s that attitude that has made Starks such an appreciated and respected teammate.
“He always prepared as if he were the starter, prepared so when he got his opportunities, he was going to go out and cash in and take advantage of them,” guard T.J. Lang said after the San Diego game. “It’s hard to find a better teammate than him. He’s always got a positive attitude. Just the way he plays the game, the passion that he has, always searching to get better.”
Said quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Wednesday: “You need multiple backs healthy and solid backs to win in this league. He’s earned some opportunities and he’s done a great job on screens the entire year. He’s a very good running back. He has a very good attitude every single day. He’s one of my favorite teammates, just the way he carries himself and prepares. He’s earned an opportunity.”
Whether Starks gets 10 carries or 20 on Sunday, or whether he’s the No. 1 back for this game or the next 11, he’ll be ready and willing to do whatever’s asked.
“I want to win championships here,” he said. “A win and what you do, whatever, that will last for a little bit but championships last forever. I’m trying to get another. I know how it feels. I know what everybody’s goal here is. I’m going to do whatever I can do while I’m here in the NFL to try to help my team win one.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.