Despite spending much of the season as the forgotten man in the Green Bay Packers' offense, veteran running back Ryan Grant could be vital to keeping the team's undefeated season going.
Running the football has taken a backseat to a potent passing game led by Aaron Rodgers, and Grant has watched as second-year running back James Starks carries a majority of the load — even though Grant has been on the field for the first snap in 10 of the team's first 12 games.
With Starks sidelined because of an ankle injury last Sunday, however, Grant made the most of his opportunity, carrying 10 times for 85 yards — including touchdowns of 47 and 6 yards in the Packers' 46-16 rout of the Oakland Raiders.
Starks missed his second straight day of practice Thursday, likely leaving Grant as the featured back Sunday in Kansas City, where the 13-0 Packers can lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory.
"We're trying to do something special as a team and contributing and being a part of this is phenomenal, really," Grant said. "Being one of the leaders and watching us do it as a team, that's why it's special. It's an awesome thing to be a part of."
Grant, who turned 29 last Friday, took a $1 million pay cut in August to stay with the team, having suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2010 regular-season opener. While the Packers won Super Bowl XLV without him, Starks emerged as the late-season go-to back en route to the title. Starks spent most of the 2010 season on the physically unable to perform list because of a pre-training camp hamstring injury, giving him fresh legs down the stretch.
Now it's Grant who has the fresh legs. In the Packers' first 12 games, Starks has carried the ball 127 times for 565 yards, while Grant has 92 for 316 yards. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Starks played 428 snaps to Grant's 228 in those 12 games.
Against the Raiders, Grant played a season-high 39 snaps, his most action since playing 34 at Chicago on Sept. 25, when he rushed 92 yards on 17 carries after Starks was pulled for losing a fumble.
"It felt good. I expected to have a good day, and we thought it'd be good for the offense and especially the run-blocking unit," Grant said. "So, it was good for us, it was good for me. I'm glad I took advantage of it."
That's something Grant couldn't do after his big game against the Bears in Week 3. He missed the following week's game against Denver with a bruised kidney suffered against the Bears, then lost a fumble against Atlanta on Oct. 9 and suddenly saw his playing time diminish thereafter.
Still, he's never complained about his reduced role, though he believes he could be the lead back and regain the form that carried him to back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009.
"Because I want to win," Grant said when asked why he hasn't made a stink about his limited snaps. "At the end of the day, individually, you want to perform at a high level, but in this game — and I know this — roles change. My role was an awesome role, being a franchise back. But, we lost. So, if I'm really being true to myself, if I really want to win, I have to admit that we didn't win like that. So, we've won a different way. I have to fall in line. I have to trust the judgment of my coaches. At the end of the day, it's all good."
Grant was certainly good against the Raiders, breaking free on the Packers' first official play from scrimmage — the opening snap was nullified by a penalty — on his 47-yard touchdown run that set the tone for the game. The play was supposed to be a pass play, but Rodgers changed it at the line of scrimmage.
"I'm really happy for him. Ryan's been a good friend, an incredible teammate and just a guy who really takes his job seriously and cares about the team over himself," Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee "A lot of guys coming off 1,200-yard seasons and not getting the kinds of carries you want or the stats you want might distance (themselves) from the rest of the guys or be a little bit selfish or just not be the same kind of guy, (have the) same positive attitude (as) when he's playing well.
"Ryan's been the exact opposite. I sit behind him in the meetings and he just takes his job really seriously. As a team leader and a friend, you can't help but be really impressed by and appreciative of the way he's approached his job this year. When he ran for those touchdowns, I was just ecstatic for him. He's a warrior and a tough runner in the winter months — as he's shown over his career — and a guy who really exemplifies, in my opinion, what it means to be a Packer."