Right now I hope this steely gaze is staring at James Starks followed by the question "So WHAT exactly would you say you do here?" Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
I'm going to warn you, this could get ugly. But we Packer fans are brave. Most of us have been toughened by the Brett Favre ups and downs, and even more through the dark ages (or as other people call them the 70's and 80's). So let's start to take a part this mess at running back shall we?
At the beginning of training camp it was clear that running back was the thinnest position on the team. This hasn't changed. Sure we could chat about the troubles at LT, but even though Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod are currently MIA, the real pitfalls for this year lay with the RB unit. Let's start with injuries shall we? Right now Alex Green is on limited duty in order to play it safe during his recovery from a knee injury last year. Brandon Saine is suffering a hamstring injury at the moment and did not play against the Chargers on Thursday. Du'ane Bennett was also held out of the game with a knee injury.
Okay, that was a lot of injuries, in fact it's everyone but James Starks and Marc Tyler. Not great news. Wait, what's that you say? James Starks is injured too? AGAIN?! For those of you keeping track at home, Starks has now battled an injury every year since he was drafted and his last year of college. I seriously think he's reserved the Justin Harrell Spa And Whirlpool package in the Packers' training room. There are a few explanations that I can think of for this development (cause we need to find some sort of explanation for this) 1.) Starks has had a four year run of bad luck, 2.) he has a body more brittle than Glass Joe, or 3.) the shoulder, the hamstring, the ankle, and now the toe are all really one injury that's slowly going down and out of his body.
If it was just injuries with Starks I would probably just shake my head and be frustrated, but it's not. He also has disappointed me consistently through camp and put together an ugly performance on Thursday. In camp his runs have been pedestrian, he still struggles in blitz pick up, and really doesn't look any better than undrafted guys like Saine or Bennett. In the game on Thursday he continued this with a botched hand-off that was lost, a terrible drop, and more of his signature "Let's run into the back of the lineman and then get tackled for a yard." I used to be cautiously optimistic that Starks would turn it around and get better. No more. This is ridiculous, and at some point you are what you are in the NFL. The Packers can do better than an oft injured low-round pick with no wiggle and little burst. James Starks is on the bubble in my mind (and I hope in the mind of the coaching staff). It's time he's earned his spot on the roster rather than be simply handed the starting job.
As for the rest of the running backs, well....Green looked okay. His runs weren't much better than Starks on Thursday, but he was on a limited run count. The Packers are being extra cautious with him and making sure that his knee is healthy before throwing him to the fire. He'll get his spot and hopefully we see more of what he can do as the preseason goes on.
The only other running back to get time on Thursday was Tyler. Tyler had an up and down game with 13 carries and 32 yards and a touchdown. He ran hard and was able to push the pile on more than one occasion, which is good for the Packers. But he didn't light things up by any stretch of the imagination. His yards per carry were not good at all, and he probably cost the Packers the game with a fumble on the last drive and last play of the game. It was clearly the best performance of the game at RB, but also not one that really won him a roster spot.
All this leads to Cedric Benson. Since the reports of him being in town and ready to sign there have been a few schools of thought regarding the move. The first is that he's not a good fit for the Packers because he's been in trouble with the law, a bit of a knucklehead, and not really as good as many think. He fumbles a lot and has a low yards per carry himself. The second school of thought sees him as a savior who will bring balance to the offense. It's a move that hearkens back to Andre Rison gaining the Packers for a Super Bowl run and then bolting out of town. The last school of thought simply asks the question "Why not Ryan Grant?" Let's break this down while looking at Benson in the Packers offense....
First, the disappointing knucklehead school of thought. Let's start by saying that Benson is no saint. There have been plenty of people who have come through 1265 Lombardi in the past who were just as bad or worse than Benson, and more will come yet. As much as we like "Packer People" and all that jazz, we need talented football players. As long as the locker room doesn't become over run with candidates for a police blotter like say the Bengals of old, the Vikings of the past decade or so, or the Lions of today, I'm fine with this sort of move. I didn't mind Koren Robinson when we needed receivers and I don't mind Cedric Benson now.
As for faults in his game, well let's set out what the expectations have got to be for him first. Benson will be there to add the threat of a running game. More important than a mere threat of a running game though is that Benson will be there to open up the four minute offense. When was the last time you saw the Packers actually run the four minute offense effectively? I think the answer is Lion game at Lambeau in 2010. That's inexcusable! This offense is prolific and can put up points by the bunches, sure, but to protect Aaron Rodgers and the defense we need the offense to be able to pound teams into the dirt at the end of a game. The Packers need to have a back who can get 3-5 yards and hit the center of that defense again and again to bleed the clock and sap the opponent's will for a comeback. This isn't a Darren Sproles type guy, but rather a big bruising back who can get tough yard after tough yard. That guy is Cedric Benson. He won't be the center point of the offense like he was in Chicago and Cincinnati, but he will be a guy who is there to take the pressure of Rodgers and help close out games. Less carries means less opportunities to fumble and the play calling should highlight his strength as a runner.
That said, he's probably not a savior of the offense. He's not going to get that many carries, and he might not be in the game much in the first half if you think about it. He's not going to be of great use in the passing game, which is king in this town, and so guys like Saine and Green will have to take point there. He might not bring as much balance as you think....but he should bring enough.
Finally, why not Ryan Grant? Let's start with this observation, remember when I said that the last 4 minute drill run successfully by the Packers was in 2010? Do you know who the running back was in that game? It wasn't Grant or Starks. It wasn't Brandon Jackson. It was John Kuhn. Grant is a good solid one cut runner, but he's never been a consistent eating yards type of guy. Grant has been a feast or famine back who is able to be a threat to break things open at any time and runs hard, but could be as likely to be stuffed for a yard as he is to break out a 60 yard strike. That's not what we need right now, we need a guy who can grind the clock and field down. Someone who can run effectively whenever they touch the ball. Game breaking plays are nice, but that's what Rodgers and his endless corp of receivers is there for, not the running game. Grant has also never been that great in the passing game. Good enough, and probably better than Benson, but also not significantly better. Why not take the chance on the more consistent runner? The guy who can let you run a four minute offense. The guy who has been productive the last three years when he was the primary weapon?
If the Packers sign Benson then things go from ugly to okay. We can let Green get healthy and hopefully Saine comes around. If the Benson deal falls through, then buckle up for a bumpy ride.