James Starks has always been a man of few words. He even was one on Wednesday, despite standing at his locker for nearly 10 minutes, politely answering question after question about his star-crossed career at latest opportunity to be the Green Bay Packers starting running back, even if for just one more week.
And while the earnest, soft-spoken Starks did have some worthwhile perspective on what he’s been through since he was an offensive godsend during the team’s Super Bowl XLV title run in 2010, it was what his teammates were saying about him Wednesday, as he prepared to start Sunday’s game at Cincinnati, that meant more.
Wide receiver Jordy Nelson: “It’s great. James has done a lot of work. He was grinding all through training camp. Kept his head down. I’m sure there was a lot of extra nonsense going on, worrying about getting cut or people talking and whatnot, but it’s great to see him just continue to work and see it pay off for him. He had a great game. We know he can run the ball. We just have to be consistent doing it and we can be effective.”
Guard Josh Sitton: “James has been doing it around here for awhile. We know what he's capable of. He's had a challenge, or some adversity this year with drafting two guys and not knowing really during camp. But you weren't able to tell that during camp. He was still working his ass off, still the same old guy. (He) kept working, had a great camp. That was something that really jumped out to us. He had a really good camp and we knew that he could come in there and do a really great job for us if somebody else isn't in there."
And, quarterback Aaron Rodgers: “We know what he’s capable of. He’s been injured off and on during his time here with us. I think we’ve seen when he’s been 100 percent healthy the kind of back he can be. Like most players, I’m sure he’s a confidence player. The more opportunities he gets when he knows he’s the guy and he’s going to get a lot of reps, that can only give you more confidence. As a quarterback, I feel that. When I know it’s my show, I’m going to play a lot more confidently. When he knew he was going to get the bulk of the carries after Eddie went down, he knew that he just had to relax and play because it wasn’t going to be his last carry in the game. Whereas if a guy’s splitting time or a backup, he might be worried about, ‘This carry has to be my best carry or I’m not going to get another chance.’ He had his chances and made the most of them.”
Now, another chance. After Starks ran for 132 yards on 20 carries in last Sunday’s victory over Washington to snap the Packers’ 44-game regular-season streak without an individual 100-yard rusher, coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that Starks “will get the starting opportunity this week,” even if rookie Eddie Lacy is cleared from the concussion he suffered against the Redskins. Lacy did not practice Wednesday but did attend and appears on track to gain clearance by week’s end.
But no matter what happens with Lacy, Starks will get the ball again, which is significant given the path he’s taken to this latest opportunity.
His medical file is twice as thick as his football bio. 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 took over as the lead back for the playoff run – he had a 123-yard effort at Philadelphia in the NFC Wild Card round – and played in a career-high 13 regular-season games while splitting time with veteran Ryan Grant in 2011. But a late-season ankle injury forced him to miss three of the final four games of the 2011 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.
After the Packers drafted Lacy in the second round and Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round, the team had five running backs – Starks, Alex Green, incumbent starter DuJuan Harris, plus the two rookies – vying for the starting job. And after Starks lost a fumble in the second preseason game at St. Louis on Aug. 17, he dropped from the top of the depth chart to the bottom. Only Harris’ season-ending knee injury (suffered Aug. 23 against Seattle, in his preseason debut) and Green’s continued lack of vision (which got him released on the final cutdown) allowed Starks to reemerge.
“I'm just going to approach practice the same way I (have) been approaching everything. When my number is called, or when I have to go in there, try to go in there and give 100 percent and prepare as best as I can so I can be successful against the Bengals,” Starks said. “This year, I've put in 100 percent effort, no matter what. Every time my number (is) called, I want to be able to go in there and perform at a high level and play successful. So coming in this year, that was my mindset and that's going to continue to be my mindset.
“Last year, I wasn't really satisfied with what I did. I'm a hard worker no matter what. I wasn't satisfied with the work I put in, you know. I felt like I let my team down, my teammates, and I wanted to come back in the best shape of my life and show them, I'm willing to work for whatever I get.”
What he’s getting now is an important chance. The Bengals’ front four has Cincinnati ranked seventh in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (62.5), and given the offensive productivity against the Redskins Sunday – when Rodgers tied a franchise record with 480 passing yards to go along with Starks’ performance – it certainly appears a productive running game helps the air attack. If he can stay healthy – a big if, to be sure – he could be the other half of the 1-2 running back combination McCarthy envisioned Harris and Lacy being.
“That's the will of a player. I never give up,” Starks said. “I mean, I'm not just playing for myself, I’m playing for my family. These guys are my family. I'm going to do all I can to come back and be the best I can be to help the team win.”
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.