From the start, I've been two steps behind the James Starks Express.
This fall, I never understood the rampant optimism that he could emerge from two years of inactivity to contribute to the Green Bay Packers' playoff run. Starks was a rookie running back whose last football game had been the January 2009 International Bowl, after all. And he's suddenly going to jump into the NFL arena without any preseason contact or even full-pads training camp drills?
When the Packers added him to their active roster in Week 11, it seemed part of a plan to give him practice repetitions that he wouldn't get on injured reserve.
And now that Starks has rushed for more yards (263) than any other running back this postseason, I'm still trying to understand what we're seeing. Have we witnessed the sudden and near-miraculous emergence of the Packers' next 1,000-yard rusher? Is his production simply a function of opportunity? Is Starks a big-time runner or just someone with a big body and fresh legs?
As we discussed earlier this month, football people have been enamored with Starks' skills for some time. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said: "There is no doubt that he is the most-talented runner on that team and has fresh legs. He shows vision, power and explosion." Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears' former director of college scouting has admitted he wanted to draft Starks before the Packers got to him.
The reality, of course, is that Starks has averaged 2.98 yards per carry in the two games after he exploded for 123 yards in the Packers' Jan. 9 wild-card playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He scored a key second-quarter touchdown in this past Sunday's NFC Championship Game, but in total he has 140 yards on 47 carries since Philadelphia.
Those figures drove Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders to note that Starks has not improved the statistical efficiency of the Packers' running game. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, most of Starks' best runs have come out of the Packers' three-back "wishbone" set that gives him an extra backfield blocker and seems to catch defenses in poor personnel matchups.
I don't disagree with anything that Barnwell wrote (you need an Insider subscription to read all of it), but I do think we can count at least three ways that the James Starks Express has at least indirectly enhanced the Packers' offense during the postseason.
McCarthy refused to name a No. 1 back following Ryan Grant's season-ending foot injury, in part because he wanted to use Jackson on third downs and other passing situations. But as a result, the Packers had only one game all season in which a single running back got 20 carries. That came in Week 15 against the New England Patriots, when Jackson carried 22 times while quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sidelined by a concussion.
But McCarthy has given Starks at least 22 carries in all three playoff games, leading to an uptick to overall running plays. In the playoffs, the Packers are averaging 27.67 carries per game by running backs. In the regular season, that figure was 22.3. You might not consider five extra carries a big difference, but it amounts to a substantial 20 percent hike.
Moreover, McCarthy's trust in Starks has significantly balanced his play-calling, which longtime observers know has occasionally been an issue for this offense. In the regular season, the Packers threw 541 passes and ran 421 times. (ESPN Stats & Information estimates that, based on what appeared to be scrambles by Rodgers, McCarthy called for a pass play 63.5 percent of the time.)
In the playoffs, the Packers have run 95 times and thrown 93 passes. The value of balance is self-explanatory.
"[Starks] has been a big part of our success," Rodgers said. "I think he's ran the ball well. Maybe the biggest thing is that Mike trusts him with 20-plus carries. And we haven't always got the great production. The Philly game, he had over 100 yards. The last couple of games his average has been, I think below 4.0. But the fact that we're trying to run the ball has set up the play-action game, which has been effective the last couple of weeks."
Which brings us to our second point. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers has completed 19 of 28 play-action passes in the playoffs for 236 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating on those throws is 117.6.
I was amazed at how good the Packers' play-action game was during the regular season, given the state of their running game. But a defense as disciplined as the Pittsburgh Steelers' is going to need more than an idle threat of the run in order to respect those fakes. Starks has given the Packers at least that much.
Finally, moving Starks to the top of the depth chart has allowed the Packers to use their other two runners in the roles they are probably best suited for. Kuhn can be their short-yardage back, while Jackson can focus on third downs and a package of running plays that he is particularly good at. Jackson, you might not realize, ran more draw plays (40) than any other NFL running back during the regular season and has run four more in the playoffs. On those 44 runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Jackson picked up 10 first downs and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt.
It's too late to stop momentum on the James Starks Express. For whatever flaws there are in the excitement surrounding his emergence, I think we can agree it has nevertheless been a net positive for the Packers.