PHILADELPHIA — The Packers did something Sunday they had never done before — win a playoff game here — and one of the heroes, of course, was James Starks.
Yep, the rookie running back who had played three games all year — three in two years, in fact, since he missed his senior year of college with an injury. The guy who had come under fire from coach Mike McCarthy late in the season for his practice habits.
Nobody could have expected him to run for 123 yards on 23 carries, as he did in the 21-16 wild-card victory over the Eagles. That includes, by the way, the guy who repeatedly handed him the ball.
Asked when he might have envisioned Starks making such a contribution, quarterback Aaron Rodgers allowed himself the smallest of smiles.
“Tonight,” he deadpanned.
He said it was possible to see Starks’ potential back in training camp, before he suffered the hamstring pull that landed him on the physically unable to perform list for the first nine weeks of the season. But it wasn’t possible to foresee a day in which his running would be “maybe one of the most important factors in the win,” as Rodgers said.
Starks, a sixth-round draft pick from Buffalo, rushed for more yards than any Packers rookie had in a playoff game. (The previous record was 88, by Travis Williams, against the Rams in 1967.) He ran for more yards than any Green Bay back had in any game this season. Brandon Jackson had generated 115 against Washington in Week 5, the Packers’ only 100-yard game before Sunday.
Starks also exceeded by 22 his yardage for the regular season, a total he reached in 29 rushes over his three appearances. And he did it in the same stadium where the Packers had lost star running back Ryan Grant for the season to an ankle injury, way back in Week 1 — and in a city where his team had gone 0-2 in its previous playoff outings.
McCarthy has been forced by Grant’s injury to juggle running backs all year. More often than not, he has used Jackson. At times, he has used John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance. And on Sunday, he settled on Starks.
“He established a hot hand early,” McCarthy said, “and I rode it.”
Starks, who busted off a season-long 27-yard run on his first carry of the day, admitted he was “very shocked” to get so much work.
“But,” he added, “I was ready. Came into the game ready to play, ready for an opportunity, and I was blessed to get that opportunity. And I’m very grateful for it.”
His long run set in motion a 10-play, 68-yard drive culminating in the day’s first touchdown, Rodgers’ 7-yard pass to backup tight end Tom Crabtree. And the Eagles’ battered defense, which was 15th in the league against the run during the regular season, never did slow him down after that.
The Packers, who finished the regular season ranked 24th in rushing (100.4 yards per game) and 28th in yards per carry (3.8) piled up 138 yards on 32 rushes (4.3 per carry). The yardage total equaled their third-best output to date.
“I don’t think it’s the first time we got the running game going,” guard Daryn Colledge said. “But we were excited. We thought we had some opportunities to run the ball. We watched film this week. We had a couple matchups that we liked.”
They seemed to really like the ones they had on the left side of the offensive line — Colledge and left tackle Chad Clifton against defensive tackle Antonio Dixon (or Brodrick Bunkley) and defensive end Trent Cole. Starks gained 72 of his yards running in that direction.
“We knew that we could run the ball,” guard Josh Sitton said. “The first game, Week 1, we ran the ball well in spurts (gaining 132 yards on 33 attempts, en route to a 27-20 victory), and had some explosive gains.”
That Starks was the one doing the damage came as no surprise to Clifton.
“He’s a very talented individual,” he said. “I think it was a matter of time for him to get comfortable and get the reps.”
Starks set school records for rushing yards (3,140) and rushing touchdowns (34) during his first three years at Buffalo, but missed his senior season with a labreal tear in his left shoulder. He said he spent April’s draft with his family — “playing some word-puzzle games, watching TV, eating popcorn.”
But not watching the selection process, apparently.
“I really didn’t want to see it,” he said, “so I stayed by the table.”
The Packers finally took him with the 193rd overall pick but he was dogged by injuries. He missed three of the five weeks of offseason practices and failed his training camp physical because of a pulled hamstring. He spent those nine weeks on the PUP list, then was inactive for two games before seeing his first action against San Francisco on Dec. 5, running 18 times for 73 yards. He also played a little the following week against Detroit, was inactive two more weeks, and made a five-carry, 20-yard cameo in the season-ending victory over Chicago.
All the while, McCarthy said Starks was going to have to show enough in practice each week to be active on game day. And in time, the message got through.
“I think he really learned the last month or so how to be a professional,” Rodgers said. “It’s a seven-day-a-week job. You’ve got to practice well if you want to play on Sunday. His practice habits have really improved the last month. He’s kind of been reenergized.”
Starks admitted as much.
“I’m a motivated person,” he said, “and when I’m not playing and I’m not getting carries, I’m just going to work hard. I want to play. I love this game. I love football. That’s what I want to do. I’m going to work hard regardless.”
After all, he said, “Coaches don’t ask too much of me. They don’t ask too much of the guys out here. They just ask you to do your job, and that’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m trying to be the best at my job, so I’m going to continue to get better.”
That’s music to the ears of his teammates.
“I’m excited,” Colledge said. “If we keep blocking and making holes for that kid, the sky’s the limit.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.