James Starks, DuJuan Harris and Alex Green did not sound the least bit worried – even if everyone thinks they should be.
Their reality is simple: They can’t waste any time or energy worrying about the Green Bay Packers’ two rookie running backs – second-round pick Eddie Lacy and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin – when they have their own issues to overcome.
For Harris, it’s getting healthy, as he’s missed the first two days of training camp with a lingering knee injury that, combined with the surgical removal of a cyst on his lung last month, caused him to miss all of the offseason organized team activity and minicamp practices. For Green, it’s staying healthy, after his surgically repaired left knee started to give him problems last season and ultimately costing him his spot on the game-day roster. And for Starks, it’s proving that he’s capable of being healthy for longer than brief increments, as his career has been sidetracked again and again by injuries.
So as the pads come on for Sunday’s first in-pads practice of training camp, the veteran running back threesome – the 27-year-old Starks being the elder statesman of the group as he enters his fourth NFL season – knows it’s all about what they do, not what the new kids on the block do.
“I know I need to out there again as quick as I can, but last year I came in in October,” said Harris, who was out of football before signing with the practice squad, was promoted to the 53-man roster on Dec. 1 and was the team’s starting running back by season’s end, rushing 34 times for 157 yards (4.6-yard average) and two touchdowns in the regular season and 28 times for 100 yards (3.6-yard average) and two more TDs in the playoffs.
“The game is the game. I just need to get out there and play the game, and then decisions will come up. So nothing’s different.”
Starks, though, is hoping everything is different. His talent is unquestioned, as he showed during the team’s Super Bowl XLV run as a rookie in 2010, when he awakened the team’s dormant running game and ran for 123 yards in an NFC Wild Card Playoff victory at Philadelphia.
But his inability to stay healthy is also impossible to ignore. He missed his entire senior season at the University of Buffalo with a shoulder injury, then spent the first half of his rookie year on the physically unable to perform list after tearing his hamstring in the pre-training camp conditioning test. He split time with veteran Ryan Grant in 2011 but a late-season ankle injury forced him to miss three of the final four games that season and parts of three other games. Then last year, he was anointed the starter in training camp and promptly suffered a toe injury in the preseason opener at San Diego when he was gang-tackled and kept his legs churning. He missed the first five regular-season games and had only six carries for 19 yards at the midway point of the season.
And just when he was making an impact – with 15 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota on Dec. 2 – he took a hit flush on his knee and was never heard from again, inactive for the final four regular-season games and the NFC Wild Card game against the Vikings. He dressed but did not play in the season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss to San Francisco, finishing the season with 71 carries for 255 yards (3.6-yard average) and one touchdown.
“Everything’s a competition. I’m just worried about myself, just trying to stay healthy, trying to go out there and give them my best effort and compete,” Starks said Saturday. “We have a lot of talent here, with the draft picks. It will just make it more interesting, more fun. Everybody is entitled to their opinions and things like that, but I think all of us are a good bunch of guys who are going to push each other and work hard.”
Starks’ greatest competition, though, is with the training room. Just as coach Mike McCarthy decided during the offseason to do everything in his power to avoid another injury epidemic like the team suffered through in 2010 and 2012, Starks did the same on a personal level. Working out at Athletes’ Performance in Pensacola, Fla., Starks focused on many of the rehabilitation exercises physical therapists recommend for recovering from injuries – even though he was healthy. His primary goal was to become more flexible, in hopes of avoiding hits or being bent into awkward positions that led to injuries.
“I have (relatively) stiff hips, and that causes quad problems, hamstring problems,” Starks explained. “This year, I’m loose, more opened up and things like that. I think it helps.”
But Starks said he’s also changing the way he runs, realizing that fighting for every yard is admirable but can be a Pyrrhic victory if he suffers an injury as a result. The toe injury is the prime example, as he tried to keep running with five defenders on his back instead of going down and living to run another day.
“That’s your instinct, but sometimes I go a little overboard because I’m strong. I might stay up in some situations where I could just fall down and not get those kind of injuries,” Starks said. “I’m going to be smarter this year. I‘m not going to change my style, I’m still going to be physical, but there’s certain hits that I think I took last season and seasons before where they weren’t necessary.
“I mean, some injuries are out of your control. But there’s a lot of injuries I probably could avoid. Not staying up, putting my shoulder down in certain situations or falling down a little sooner and not taking those extra blows that were unnecessary. That could have helped me out sometimes. After looking at everything, I learned a lot. I understand more. The game is slowing down for me and I can be myself again. I feel good coming in this year. I feel healthy and I feel like myself again.
“I just have to be myself, stay healthy. That’s the big thing. If I’m healthy, it’s not like I can’t play the game. I’m confident in my capabilities. I’ve just got to stay healthy, work hard and continue to get better.”
For his career, Starks has played in only 27 of 55 possible games, but he’s not the only one with something to prove in the injury department. Green, who tore his ACL in Minnesota in October 2011 to end his rookie season, has played in only 16 of a possible 35 games.
“I feel good physically. The knee, that whole thing is behind me,” said Green, who did not play in the Packers’ final four games last season (including the two playoff games) but led the team in rushing in the regular season with 135 carries for 464 yards (3.4-yard average) and no touchdowns. “It doesn’t feel exactly the same as it did before the injury, just naturally having surgery. But it does feel great; I’m not even concerned about it. So I’m moving past that and just working on getting better as a football player.”
The Packers’ struggles in the running game are well-documented. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in their last 43 regular-season games, more than twice as long as any other active streak in the NFL. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers’ running backs have combined for 12 rushing touchdowns and are averaging just 3.8 yards per rush over the last three seasons – the fewest in the NFL for both categories.
Even if the Packers’ commitment to running the ball is only marginally greater this season, at the very least they’ve increased the completion for jobs at the running back position. Last year, they went to camp with only five running backs – Starks, Green, special-teamer Brandon Saine and undrafted free agents Du’ane Bennett and Marc Tyler – before adding veteran Cedric Benson after Starks’ injury. This year, they have six – Starks, Green, Harris, Lacy, Franklin and undrafted rookie Angelo Pease – and have upgraded the talent level with their draft-pick investments.
Now, we’ll find out who’ll step to the fore, starting with Sunday’s practice.
“Hey, we need to run the ball better. That’s fact of the matter,” McCarthy said. “Running the football is a collective effort. There has to be commitment from the play-caller. It’s something we need to do a better job of and I’m confident that we will.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.