MILWAUKEE (AP) — Aaron Rodgers, sure. Clay Matthews, certainly. Greg Jennings, check.
The Atlanta Falcons now have someone else on the Green Bay Packers roster to think about: James Starks.
The unheralded rookie running back rushed for 123 yards in the Packers’ playoff victory at Philadelphia on Sunday, setting a franchise record for the most yards rushing by a rookie in a postseason game.
Starks, a sixth-round pick out of Buffalo who has struggled with injuries and had his work habits questioned just weeks ago, has given the pass-happy Packers the threat of a running game just in time for the playoffs. Green Bay plays at Atlanta on Saturday night with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line.
“I thought he played above his age,” offensive lineman Daryn Colledge said. “He had a game this year earlier where he played like that and he’s been fighting the bug to stay healthy, so he’s still trying to learn. But I like a guy that busts out big runs and he’s still disappointed in himself because he could have gotten more.”
As of late last month, Starks didn’t appear to be on his way to playoff stardom.
Despite showing flashes of running ability for a team that desperately needed it, Starks found himself inactive in back-to-back games in December. Then Mike McCarthy questioned Starks’ effort in a news conference, an out-of-character move for a coach who usually delivers harsh critiques in private.
“He needs to do a better job throughout the week in preparation and in practice,” McCarthy said of Starks on Dec. 27. “Until he gets that done, he won’t be (playing).”
Apparently, McCarthy got Starks’ attention.
His performance against the Eagles was a remarkable turnaround for a player who missed his entire senior season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury and began this season on the physically unable to perform list because of a lingering hamstring injury.
Starks is big (6-2, 218 pounds), is said to run the 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds and rushed for 3,140 yards and 34 touchdowns in college. He just needed to get healthy and earn his coaches’ trust.
“I think he really learned the last month or so how to be a professional and that this is a seven day a week job and you have to practice well if you are going to play on Sunday,” Rodgers said. “His practice habits have really improved in the last month and he has been re-energized and had a big game for us.”
Starks was as surprised as anyone when he kept getting the ball Sunday.
“I was very shocked, but I was ready,” Starks said. “I 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.”
Starks went out of his way to credit his offensive line after Sunday’s game, and said the best piece of advice he got from veterans was to hold onto the ball.
“They were just telling me, ‘Make sure you don’t lose that ball, hold it high and tight, put two hands on the football,’” Starks said. “I just didn’t want to fumble at that time in the game and I didn’t want to be the reason to give the game away. I did what they asked me to do, so I’m good.”
With Sunday’s performance, Starks showed the potential to fill a season-long void for the Packers.
Green Bay hasn’t been able to run the ball consistently since losing running back Ryan Grant to an ankle injury in the first week of the season. Brandon Jackson was expected to carry the load, but hasn’t been particularly productive.
In the Packers’ 20-17 loss at Atlanta on Nov. 28, Rodgers was his team’s leading rusher.
Starks finally got on the field against San Francisco on Dec. 5, gaining 73 yards on 18 carries. But he didn’t do much against Detroit the following week — and then McCarthy sat him down.
McCarthy didn’t go into Sunday’s game intending to give Starks so many carries.
“He established a hot hand early and I rode it,” McCarthy said.
Starks was particularly effective out of a three-back, two-receiver formation that lined Starks up deep behind a pair of fullbacks, John Kuhn and Quinn Johnson, split to either side of Rodgers. And while Starks might not be able to repeat his feat against the Falcons on Saturday, he might not have to.
The mere threat of the Packers being able to run will make the Falcons’ defense have to think twice about going all-out to stop Rodgers and help set up the play action passing game.
“I’m so happy for him, he’s a great kid,” Rodgers said. “He’s really grown up a lot the last couple weeks.”