Starks, a rookie sixth-round draft pick who injured his hamstring prior to training camp and proceeded to miss the first 11 games of the season, carved up the Eagles for 123 rushing yards on 23 carries to help the Packers notch a 21-16 Wild Card playoff win on Sunday.
“We told the ‘rook’ before we even started this game that, ‘You’ve got to go out there and do what you do,’” veteran receiver Donald Driver said. “’You’re not a young buck anymore. This is a new season for you. The playoffs start now.’ And he ran well today.”
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers called Starks’ effort perhaps the most important factor in the Packers winning the game. His yardage shattered the previous Green Bay rookie record for rushing yards in a playoff game. Travis Williams had 88 yards back on Dec. 23, 1967, against the Los Angeles Rams in Milwaukee.
Starks was past that by early in the third quarter, when he carried five times for 32 yards on the 80-yard touchdown drive that put the Packers ahead 21-10.
He got his day off to a great start, bursting through a big hole over the left side for a 27-yard gain on his first carry, on the Packers’ second possession. He carried three more times for 9 yards on that drive, which ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tom Crabtree, and it became clear early that Starks was going to have a big role on this day.
“He established a hot hand early, and I rode it,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “James was a difference-maker.”
Starks, who also had two receptions for 9 yards, said he never knows week to week what the coaches might have in store for him, but he looks at his job as being prepared for anything.
“I was ready for that situation,” Starks said. “Hard work does really pay off. I’m a very firm believer in that. I’m going to continue to work hard and continue to try to get better be the best athlete I can for the team. When my number is called I have to be ready.”
He had seized his other big opportunity earlier this season, rushing for 73 yards on 18 carries in his first game against San Francisco back on Dec. 5. He had joined the active roster just a couple weeks prior to that, having spent the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform list due to the hamstring.
The San Francisco contest was actually his first football game in nearly two full calendar years after Starks missed his senior season at the University at Buffalo with a shoulder injury.
The big game against the 49ers didn’t transfer feature-back status his way, though. The coaching staff still needed to see more in practice – sounder fundamentals, better preparation for every snap, all of that. So he was inactive a couple of games down the stretch and had limited carries in the others.
“I think you saw the potential in him way back when he got here – big, athletic, long strides, elusive,” Rodgers said. “But I think he really learned last month or so how to be a professional. It’s a seven-day-a-week job and you have to practice well if you’re going to play on Sundays. His practice habits have really improved the last month, and he’s kind of been re-energized and he had a big night for us tonight.”
Through it all, Starks didn’t get down. He just kept plugging away.
“I’m a motivated person when I’m not playing or not getting carries,” Starks said. “I’m just going to work hard. I want to play. I love this game. I love football, and I’m going to work hard regardless.”
Sunday’s performance was the best by a Green Bay running back all season, topping the 115 yards Brandon Jackson posted at Washington in Week 5.
Analysts have speculated that the Packers might not be able to advance in the playoffs without a productive running game, but Starks gave them one to lean on in this first round.
“There has been a lot of questions, and obviously we haven’t run the ball as well as we would like to all season,” guard Daryn Colledge said. “But we’ve been running the ball well this last month and we’ve taken some steps forward.”
It started with Starks’ performance against the 49ers, and then Brandon Jackson put up 99 yards at New England two weeks later. In Week 16 vs. the Giants, the Packers gained 119 yards on the ground with a variety of ballcarriers, though they did not include Starks, who was inactive that day.
Walking out onto Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, with the temperature at 30 degrees and winds blowing close to 20 miles an hour, the conditions weren’t conducive to throwing the ball at will. The ground game was necessary, and it produced.
“We knew it was going to be like that,” fellow running back John Kuhn said. “The wind was pretty bad today and it was cold. That’s a recipe for a run game.
“I think part of it is just the fact teams don’t expect us to run. Now’s the time to show them we can. Maybe we caught them off guard today, maybe we didn’t, but we did pretty well.”
Counting quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ scrambles and a few carries from Jackson and Kuhn, the Packers posted 138 rushing yards in all, tied for third best on the year.
Most impressive was that Starks averaged 5.3 yards per carry and gained at least 4 yards on 12 of his 23 rushes. The production was pretty consistent, and it gave the Packers several manageable third downs as the offense converted 8-of-13 (62 percent) on the money down.
“I think he was disappointed himself,” Colledge said. “He felt like he had more to give, felt like he got tripped up a couple times by himself. But it’s good to see young guy like that extremely hungry who wants to go out there and wants to compete.”
Only five times was Starks brought down for 1 yard or less. Unfortunately two of those came on the Packers’ final possession when one more first down would have allowed Green Bay to run the clock out, but the Eagles were clearly stacking their defense to stop Starks there.
Moments before, he had broken off a 12-yard run to move the chains and keep the clock moving, forcing the Eagles to use their last timeout with 3:48 left.
“That’s hats off to everybody on the team,” Starks said. “It’s not an individual effort. The line did a great job, the receivers did a great job, the fullbacks did a great job, getting body on body.”
Now the question is whether Starks can keep it up and help the Packers make a long playoff run. A performance like this one should give him plenty of confidence as he prepares for Round 2.
“He gave us a spark,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “He grew up today.”
“I think it comes from just seeing results. You get out there and make 6-, 7-yard runs, you start realizing, ‘Hey, I can play in this league and I’m pretty good.’ He’s got all the physical ability in the world, and once he sees, ‘Hey, I can make something happen,’ I think that does a lot for him and you saw we kept pounding him. Hopefully he can take that and build on it.”