Packing the Stats: Running Back Role Reversal
One of the big problems with playing 3 games in 10 days is that injuries are that much more devastating. In particular, having only 3 days to get healthy for Packers such as Greg Jennings and James Starks will be a particularly difficult task. In my opinion, there’s no huge rush to push Jennings if he isn’t a 100% ready.
Jordy Nelson (who happens to be white) has had a career year and Jermichael Finley is a near lock to be the focal point of the defense even if he isn’t targeted all that much. After that, there is always Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb or maybe even Andrew Quarless who is capable of having a fantastic game in Jennings’ absence.
Not so much with James Starks. While still technically the backup to Ryan Grant, anyone who has watched a Packers game (save perhaps the Bears game) understands that Grant is really backing up Starks. The difference between the two can be summed up pretty easily; Starks is the better performer but Grant is the more dependable of the two.
As you can see, Starks has outperformed Grant in attempts given (though I admit that its probably more based on the coaches and Aaron Rodgers’ play calling), total yards and yards per attempt. Grant on the other hand has outperformed Starks based on variance (or standard deviation), total number of “bad plays” (here defined as running plays that resulted in no gain or loss of yards) and bad plays per attempt. The summary here is that Starks is the big play back, who can rip off huge runs but is also more prone to getting stuffed behind the line while Grant is the consistent back who almost always gets some yardage but also almost never gets the big run.
It should also be noted that there really isn’t any comparison between the two running backs’ ability as receivers. Grant has only had 8 receptions for 69 yards this season while Starks has caught the ball 28 times for 210 yards. Grant has never really had the softest hands and even fullback/folk-hero John Kuhn has more receptions than Grant this season.
Based on this information it would appear to make the most sense to start Starks out in the beginning of the game and close the game out with Grant. The reasoning is that at the beginning of the game where the Packers want to score points, having a runner who can pull out a big run and catch the ball would allow your offense to put itself in the best position to score. On the other hand, near the end of the game (especially if you are the Packers and ahead), a runner who can grind out consistent first downs (even when the defense knows its going to be a running play) and kill the clock is the most advantageous. In essence, being able to rip a 30 yard run doesn’t help as much since near the end of the game, the Packers aren’t playing against the team, they are playing against the clock.
Ironically this seems to be the exact opposite of what’s happening. Grant is heavily featured in the first quarter of the game but then is phased out by Starks who has 50 attempts in the 4th quarter compared to 17 for Grant. Perhaps the reason is that in the 4th quarter Grant has an average of 2.29 yards per attempt, which is far below the 3.5 yards that most coaches strive for to get the first down.
I will mention that this simply might be due to the small number of attempts that Grant has been given during the 4th quarter. Also one other factor is that Grant has always been the type of back that gets better as the game and season wears on; one of Grants best assets is that he’s like Rocky and can outlast the defense until they start to give him more yards. If this is more of a function of the defense than Grant, again you would think that Grant would be better in the 4th quarter, but that isn’t happening.
Going back to Starks injury, which while gruesome to look at apparently isn’t all that bad as he participated in individual drills on Tuesday, will be an interesting factor going into the Thanksgiving game against the Lions. The Lions are well known to have a very strong defensive line built to rush the quarterback. One of the most effective methods of slowing down the pass rush is forcing the defense to stay honest in run defense. Ironically one of the reasons why the Lions have had issues on offense is their inability to even have the façade of a running game, especially on 3rd downs (which they apparently rank dead last in terms of efficiency)
I think everyone assumes that this is going to be a shootout, but who ever has the lead at the end is going to have to be able to ice the clock; I’m pretty confident in saying that the Lions don’t have that ability, but without Starks do the Packers?
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.