NFC North: Brandon Saine

We're Black and Blue All Over:

Two Green Bay Packers players suffered season-ending knee injuries in Sunday night's game at Reliant Stadium. A third appeared fortunate to have avoided the same. As we discussed in Monday's Free Head Exam, it's fair to wonder if the Packers would draw any connection between the injuries to linebacker D.J. Smith and running back Brandon Saine -- and the apparent near-miss of linebacker Nick Perry -- to the stadium's unique grass surface.

The field consists of grass on 1,250 portable trays and requires maintenance at the seams. As Jason Wilde of points out, Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn't dismiss the injuries as coincidence.

"Their surface is definitely different," McCarthy said during a news conference. "It's something we've never played on before in my time here, so just the way it's brought into their seams just because of the design of it, for grass I thought it was hard. I'm not an expert on if that had any factor in the injuries."

Meanwhile, McCarthy was asked if the hit that caused Smith's injury was dirty. It occurred when Texans tackle Duane Brown blocked Smith away from the play from the side.

McCarthy: "It's something you obviously don't want to see happen. It's unfortunate. It was an avoidable. It probably depends on what side you’re coaching. I think the offensive lineman was trying to finish the play, the play was close to being over. They were behind the tackle. But it was an ugly play and D.J. suffered a serious injury."

We'll see if the NFL weighs in on that one.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk will play a big role for the Packers moving forward, writes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • The Packers faced a similar situation with multiple injured players in their run to the Super Bowl in 2010, notes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • In a radio interview, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz did not rule out the possibility of activating running back Jahvid Best from the physically unable to perform list before a three-week window closes next month. Justin Rogers of explains.
  • The Lions might have released veteran running back Kevin Smith if Best was cleared to practice, notes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Lions rookie offensive lineman Riley Reiff is pushing for additional playing time, according to the Detroit Free Press.
  • The Chicago Bears haven't forgotten their chippy game with the Lions at Soldier Field last season. Jeff Dickerson of has more.
  • Bears special-teams ace Blake Costanzo is planning to return to practice this week after having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right hand, according to Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was inaccurate on 11 of his 17 incompletions Sunday against the Washington Redskins, according to film review from Tom Pelissero of
  • Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson clearly wasn't happy to have been deactivated for Sunday's game against the Redskins and let it be known during a terse interview session Monday, according to Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
  • Receiver Percy Harvin on his heavy workload, via Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "I'm a little sore. But no sorer than anybody else. I've got two days off. I'll be ready to go Wednesday."


Packers sifting through injury mess

October, 15, 2012
Before I run out of gas on what has been what I'll call Sonday -- a Sunday that never really ended and has bled into Monday -- let's review what we know about the Green Bay Packers' long list of injuries and personnel questions stemming from their 42-24 victory against the Houston Texans on Sunday/Monday.

Courtesy the Twitter feed of reporter Jason Wilde:
  • Linebacker D.J. Smith will miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury. Coach Mike McCarthy wouldn't say who will replace Smith in the lineup, but veteran Brad Jones handled the job against the Texans. Another option is Rob Francois, who was a fill-in starter in 2010.
  • Running back Brandon Saine is also lost for the season because of a knee injury. The Packers have already placed him on injured reserve and claimed running back Johnny White on waivers to replace him. Saine had strictly been a special-teams player this season.
  • Linebacker Nick Perry (knee) and cornerback Sam Shields (shin) don't appear to have long-term injuries. We'll find out Wednesday if they're going to practice this week.
  • McCarthy said second-year player Alex Green will remain the Packers' primary runner, answering our question from Sonday's Free Head Exam. McCarthy: "I was very pleased with Alex Green. Alex Green will be our lead running back."
  • If Shields needs to miss time, it's fair to assume that rookie Casey Hayward will take his place in the starting lineup.

OK. Barring more breaking news, I'll be back with you Tuesday morning.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

PHILADELPHIA -- With Week 6 in the books here in the NFC North, let's reset our standings:
  1. Chicago Bears (4-1)
  2. Minnesota Vikings (4-2)
  3. Green Bay Packers (3-3)
  4. Detroit Lions (2-3)

The record shows the Packers are the third-best team in the division, but I'm guessing they will leapfrog the Vikings and a few other NFL teams in this week's all-important Power Rankings, due out Tuesday afternoon. The Packers' 42-24 victory Sunday night over the previously undefeated Houston Texans was one of the most impressive victories in the NFL this season, and in a week-to-week league, the Packers have re-claimed their place among the elite teams.

I'm trekking back to NFC North headquarters Monday morning and will resume blogging upon return For now, let's take a look at weekend coverage around the NFC North:
  • Out of nowhere, writes Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, a "collective spirit kicked in as the sun lost its afternoon heat" for the Lions. Albom: "If a good game blown at the end turns Detroit into The Mourning City, then a bad game saved at the end has to brighten our spirits. They muscled up. They donned a cape. All that was missing was the phone booth."
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News: " [I]t is pretty remarkable, nonetheless, how the Lions keep pulling rabbits out their helmet."
  • Lions running back Jahvid Best is eligible to be activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list Monday, but coach Jim Schwartz said Sunday he had no information to share. Anwar S. Richardson of has more.
  • Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder made two critical mistakes inside his own 20-yard line, writes Mark Craig of the Star Tribune. Overall, Craig writes, Sunday's loss to the Washington Redskins was Ponder's "worst game of the season."
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "The heck of it is the Vikings could have beaten the Redskins. They should have beaten them. And they would have beaten them if they had performed halfway decently when they got close the Washington end zone. That game was sitting right there on the shelf, waiting to be plopped into the shopping cart. But with prosperity starting them between the eyes, the Vikings blinked. Three times."
  • The Vikings were worried about blitzing Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and paid for it on his 76-yard touchdown run. Tom Pelissero of explains.
  • Pelissero takes on the Vikings' red zone failures in the first quarter.
  • It appears the Packers will lose linebacker D.J. Smith (knee) and running back Brandon Saine (knee) for the year, according to Jason Wilde of Coach Mike McCarthy was less specific on injuries to linebacker Nick Perry (knee) and cornerback Sam Shields (shin).
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: "Incredibly, this was the same quarterback that was getting assailed during the week by critics and NFL analysts. Some went so far as to call Rodgers a 'rattled quarterback' based on his performance in the first five games."
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "If it looked as if the Green Bay Packers were a different football team Sunday night, that's because they were. Same no-huddle offense. Same 3-4 defense. Different attitude. Before the game, coach Mike McCarthy implored his team to come out breathing fire and to maintain that intensity until the Houston Texans had suffered their first loss of the season."
  • Jeffri Chadiha of "The skeptics will say this was one rough evening for a Texans team that entered Sunday's game without a loss. The more enlightened will see it for what it really was: an indication that Green Bay, now 3-3, shouldn't be written off just yet."
  • The Bears had their bye this week, but when they resume practicing Monday, there is some optimism they will get receiver Earl Bennett back after he missed two games because of a hand injury. Bennett told Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times that he thinks he'll play Oct. 22 against the Lions.

We're Black and Blue All Over:

For those wondering exactly how the Green Bay Packers will replace running back Cedric Benson's carries -- not that there are any fantasy implications, of course -- here is what we can tell you: Alex Green will get the first carry Sunday night against the Houston Texans. After that, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he will go with the "hot hand" between Green, James Starks and Brandon Saine.

All three players got work with the first team in practice Wednesday, according to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. McCarthy: "The first carry will be Alex Green. He's a little farther ahead than James is right now and that's the way we'll go. But we have three halfbacks and we'll utilize all three of them."

That makes sense in the initial stages of replacing Benson, mostly because it's not clear if the Packers have a player they can rely on singularly to take on the full load. It will have to be a team effort, at least initially.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Yes, the Packers' offense has sputtered, and [Aaron] Rodgers deserves some blame for that. But to suggest there is something amiss with Rodgers' game is foolish."
  • Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who is once again the NFL's sack leader due to a scoring change by the Elias Sports Bureau, is calling for more protection for defensive players by the NFL. Jason Wilde of explains.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles' high-priced secondary poses a challenge for the Detroit Lions, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • The production of Lions receiver Titus Young has not matched his preseason promise, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • The Lions' defensive line has a chance to have an impact against the Eagles' offensive line, according to Justin Rogers of
  • Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook on his play this season, via the Star Tribune: "I had a lot of time off my first two years. I'm not saying it's an excuse or anything like that. But I definitely feel I can play better. And, with more reps, I feel I will."
  • Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press speaks with Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.
  • Veteran receivers Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu will need to play bigger roles for the Vikings if receiver Jerome Simpson continues to be slowed by a back issue. Judd Zulgad of explains.
  • Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery won't approach coach Lovie Smith about a contract extension until after the season, writes Michael C. Wright of
  • Emery on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune: "He's a passionate player. He has great drive and energy. He is moving toward excellence. He does care and love his teammates and he is a big part of what we’re doing and the positive things we are doing."
  • Suddenly, writes Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times, free-agent receivers want to play for the Bears.

Monday Quick Hits: NFC North

October, 8, 2012
Let's catch up on several pressing injury concerns in the NFC North, starting with the Green Bay Packers' backfield:

Item: Packers tailback Cedric Benson won't play Sunday night against the Houston Texans because of a foot injury, coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Monday, and it's not clear what his future holds beyond that. Alex Green, James Starks and Brandon Saine will all be in the mix for playing time this week.
Comment: It won't matter who plays running back for the Packers if they aren't willing to run the ball. McCarthy told reporters that he turned away from the running game Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts because he thought the Packers had opportunities to strike in the passing game. We saw the downside, however, when the Colts' pass rush perked up at about the same time.

Item: Nose tackle B.J. Raji (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (shoulder) have a chance to play against the Texans, according to McCarthy.
Comment: We'll see if either player practices Wednesday. Raji reportedly had a significant limp as he departed the locker room Sunday. Finley said he thinks he will play.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings are having receiver Jerome Simpson checked out for a possible back injury after an odd bout of leg weakness Sunday.
Comment: Simpson seemed to have some spring in his legs during pregame introductions based on this photograph.

Item: Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery had his hand in a cast Monday, according to Michael C. Wright of
Comment: The Bears' bye week comes at a good time for Jeffery. Wright reports that he could miss "a few" weeks. The Bears have practices scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday before they disperse for the bye. The injury is a fracture, according to Jeff Dickerson of

ChatWrap: Future of James Starks

August, 28, 2012
Our SportsNation chat was stacked with questions about the NFL's looming final cutdown day and the potential for last-minute roster shuffling over the Labor Day weekend. The juiciest suggestion came about 20 minutes in:

Bob (Oshkosh)

You heard it here first...the Packers will release James Starks Friday

Kevin Seifert (2:21 PM)

A lot of people are asking about that. There is definitely something weird going on. [Mike] McCarthy said today that he hasn't made much progress in that turf toe injury. Quite a turn of events. Would they release him? It would be the third consecutive year he's had some kind of injury that cost him games.

Starks entered training camp as the Packers' unquestioned No. 1 running back, but he quickly fell off the radar after suffering the injury Aug. 9. The Packers signed veteran Cedric Benson a few days later, although it's still not clear whether they lost patience with Starks' injury history or if they simply wanted a veteran fallback if Starks' recovery extended into the regular season.

The latter scenario seemed likely Tuesday after McCarthy told reporters: "James Starks, just talking to the medical staff, is coming along slow. So we’ll just continue to treat him. He hasn't made a whole of progress here of late."

It would be a quick fall for a player the Packers seemed so enthused about entering camp. To be clear, I don't know that the Packers have given up on him. Starks came out of nowhere in 2010 to help them win the Super Bowl, and for that reason there is reason to believe he could return at some point this season and provide a boost.

When deciding whether to dedicate a roster spot to Starks, the Packers will have to weigh that hope with a big-picture look at his injury history. He missed his final season at Buffalo in 2009 because of a shoulder injury and needed more than half of his rookie season to recover from a hamstring injury in 2010. Last season, he managed only 19 carries over the Packers' final seven games because of knee and ankle injuries.

In the end, this story might be different if the Packers were overflowing with running back depth. Behind Benson is second-year player Alex Green, who hardly played as a rookie before tearing his ACL. The Packers also have veteran John Kuhn and second-year player Brandon Saine, who hasn't played this preseason because of a hamstring injury. I don't have any inside information on this one, but I'm not sure the Packers are in position to lose patience so quickly with a once-prized running back.

Previewing preseason Week 3, part I

August, 23, 2012
In which we look ahead to the Green Bay Packers' third preseason game, the first of four NFC North affairs over the next three days:

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

Location: Paul Brown Stadium

Day/Time: Thursday/7 p.m. ET

Personnel notes: Starters are expected to play at least a half. … Three key players are scheduled to make their preseason debuts: Receiver Greg Jennings, cornerback Sam Shields and running back Cedric Benson. That list was also scheduled to include tight end Jermichael Finley, but Finley tweeted Thursday morning that he was returning to Green Bay following the birth of his child. … Benson will have some motivation to play against his former team, but mostly this is his chance to demonstrate he can be the Packers' Week 1 starter. James Starks remains sidelined by a toe injury and Brandon Saine won't play because of a hamstring injury. Alex Green could be in the mix as well, but a big night Thursday could be huge for Benson. ... We'll get a chance to see if the Packers can achieve any clarity at two wide-open positions in their secondary. Can Shields put on a late run to win a starting cornerback job? Or will the position go to Jarrett Bush, Casey Hayward or Davon House when he returns from a shoulder injury? What about at safety, where M.D. Jennings has shared first-team reps with Jerron McMillian and Anthony Levine?

Focal point: Everyone loves a backup quarterback controversy, and that's (sort of) what the Packers have after Graham Harrell's underwhelming performance in the first team preseason games. People from all facets of the franchise -- the front office, coaching staff and teammates -- have all expressed unwavering support for Harrell. So in reality, Harrell really just needs to avoid catastrophe Thursday night to secure this job. But if nothing else, it would make everyone feel better if he plays better than that.

Previewing Preseason Week 2, Part I

August, 16, 2012
In which we look ahead to the Green Bay Packers' second preseason game, the first of four NFC North affairs over the next three days:

Opponent: Cleveland Browns

Location: Lambeau Field

Day/Time: Thursday/8 p.m. ET

Personnel notes: The Packers have ruled out 17 players because of injuries, including running back James Starks (toe), receiver Greg Jennings (concussion), tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps), cornerback Sam Shields (elbow) and running back Brandon Saine (hamstring). … With newcomer Cedric Benson not ready to appear in a game and John Kuhn (ankle) doubtful as well, the Packers will be thin at running back. Starter Alex Green likely will have his snaps limited by continuing recovery from knee surgery, but the Packers only have two other healthy running backs behind him. … Rookie Casey Hayward will get the start at cornerback in place of the injured House and Starks. … The return of left tackle Marshall Newhouse (concussion) should give the Packers a better look at their first-team offense than the one they got last week against the San Diego Chargers.

Focal point: The Packers believe that backup quarterback Graham Harrell will continue to improve with game-like repetitions, so expect Harrell to have another long stint against the Browns. Despite continued public discussion about the possibility of trading for the Browns' Colt McCoy, the Packers want to make it work with Harrell.

On Cedric Benson over Ryan Grant

August, 12, 2012
Via Twitter, @molden86 voices what many of you have asked in the wake of the Green Bay Packers' acquisition of running back Cedric Benson, a deal made official late Sunday afternoon: "Why not just bring [Ryan] Grant back?!?"

After all, both players are 29. Grant has 605 fewer regular-season carries and knows the Packers offense far better than Benson at the moment.

Tyler Dunne offered a thorough look at the question earlier over at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We're assuming it's the Packers who made this decision, rather than Grant turning down an offer. (We have no evidence of that.) Regardless, here are my two cents:

First, it should be noted the Packers gave Benson a one-year contract for the veteran's minimum ($825,000) with no bonus, according to ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt. That means the Packers could release him at any point before Week 1 and not owe him a penny nor be required to devote any salary-cap space to his contract.

The money isn't as important as what it reminds us about this situation: It's fluid and easily reversible. We can't assume the Packers have decided to make Benson their No. 1 or even their No. 2 running back in 2012. They're in an injury bind and needed a significant fill-in should James Starks' turf toe injury linger for more than a few weeks. The person the Packers brought in had to be capable of opening the season as a No. 1 running back, but also be expendable enough to be cast aside if Starks, Alex Green and Brandon Saine are all ready to open the season. (Remember, that was the Packers' original plan when training camp began.)

I realize the NFL is a cutthroat business, but the Packers' decision to sign Benson over Grant could be viewed as a show of respect. If they bring Grant back, and that could conceivably happen if injuries persist, it should be as a permanent member of the roster rather than as an expendable insurance policy. Grant's contributions to the team over the years merit such treatment.

Second, it's quite possible that whatever led the Packers to move on from Grant in the offseason informed this decision as well. Casting personal affinities aside, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that the Packers view Benson as a better player. That assessment wouldn't exactly leave the Packers on an island in the NFL. As we start the second full week of August, no other team has signed Grant, either.

To be clear, these are just educated guesses. The Packers' announcement came after Sunday's coach and player access, so we don't have an official explanation or comment. We'll update the blog whenever coach Mike McCarthy or general manager Ted Thompson addresses it.

NFC North Quick Hits: Sunday

August, 12, 2012
A few quick hits to update the news stories we touched on Saturday:

Item: Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher broke his silence on his absence from practice, saying he was "sure" he will be ready to play when the regular season opens Sept. 9.
Comment: In the end, that's all that matters. A 34-year-old linebacker doesn't need much, if any, preseason work. Here's the concern: If the knee swelled up after a week or so of practice, which followed seven months of rehabilitation and rest, is it reasonable to think Urlacher can get through a 16-game season without it happening again?

Item: As reported by ESPN's Josina Anderson, the Minnesota Vikings activated tailback Adrian Peterson from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list on Sunday. Peterson participated in a morning walk-through practice but will have to ease into the full practice schedule in accordance with the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA). He should practice in full pads Tuesday.
Comment: Coach Leslie Frazier cautioned reporters about making assumptions on Peterson's next step and eventual availability for Week 1. But it's easy to see a path that takes him through a few weeks of practice, gets him on the field for preseason Week 3 or 4, or both, and culminates with at least an appearance in the Sept. 9 opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Item: The Green Bay Packers moved through another practice without announcing the signing of tailback Cedric Benson.
Comment: Multiple news outlets confirmed the original ESPN report that Benson was in Green Bay and preparing to sign with the team. It's not clear what, if anything, has caused the delay. But with James Starks sidelined by a turf toe, Alex Green on a snap count because of his knee and Brandon Saine limited by a hamstring injury, you would think the Packers need to make a significant addition at running back.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen blew me away Friday afternoon with his report that free-agent running back Cedric Benson is in Green Bay and preparing to sign a contract with the Packers. I don't necessarily stand in judgment against it, I'm just totally surprised. A few thoughts on this deal, assuming it occurs:

  1. General manager Ted Thompson stepped out of his comfort zone a couple of times this offseason to sign veteran free agents, in each case for a specific reason. He didn't think his team could go with an untested player at center, so he signed Jeff Saturday. And he thought the Packers needed multiple infusions of juice at defensive line, leading to the acquisitions of Anthony Hargrove, Daniel Muir and Phillip Merling. So he must have thought his backfield was in worse shape than it appeared to be to pursue Benson.
  2. [+] EnlargeCedric Benson
    AP Photo/Tony TribbleCedric Benson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards for the Bengals in each of the past three seasons.
    The Packers clearly committed to James Starks as their lead back in the offseason, and while he struggled in Thursday night's preseason opener, that would be an awfully quick hook on that commitment. Starks is still just 26 and the Packers are usually pretty patient with their player development.
  3. The Packers have downplayed the significance of experience and veteran depth in the backfield since Ryan Grant injured his ankle in Week 1 of the 2010 season. Since then, they have passed up numerous opportunities to add veterans with cache, including then-Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, and instead remained committed to their internal depth. The timing of this move is a legitimate question. Why now?
  4. With all of that said, the Packers had a need for some experience in the backfield. At this point, Alex Green and Brandon Saine, with a combined 21 NFL carries, were Starks' backups. But the Packers had not acted on that need for so long that most of us had given up on pushing it.
  5. I reached out to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., who liked the deal from a pure football perspective. Williamson doesn't think Benson will help the Packers in their passing game, but it's worth noting he produced more than 1,000 rushing yards for the Cincinnati Bengals in each of the past three seasons. "Benson is a better runner still than anyone the Packers have right now," Williamson said. "He can get what is blocked still -- and a bit more. And he should be a decent inside zone runner, especially against unstacked boxes." In other words, Benson should be able to capitalize more than Starks on defenses situated to play the run.
  6. Benson is 29 and has a long history of legal problems. We all know the Chicago Bears released him in 2008 as a result. He was suspended one game last season after a pair of misdemeanor assault arrests. That's only relevant to the Packers in that another incident would probably lead to a significantly longer suspension, per the NFL's policy against repeat offenses.
  7. Overall, this move is notable mostly for what it reveals about the Packers' internal view of their backfield. To me, you don't go through the trouble of signing Cedric Benson just for a look-see. You bring him in because you think you need him. I think a reasonable argument could be made that the Packers needed more juice in their backfield. I'm just surprised they acted on it when they did.
Expanding on our initial observations from Green Bay Packers minicamp:

We should add a qualifying statement to last week's assertion, the one where we said the Packers have committed to James Starks as their primary running back for 2012. Here's a better way of putting it: To the extent that the Packers will have a primary running back in 2012, James Starks appears to be the one and only candidate.

The difference? The Packers have the NFL's reigning MVP at quarterback and one of the league's most dynamic passing games. They will run the ball in 2012, but employing a reliable 250-carry ball carrier isn't as high on their priority list as it might be for some teams.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has indicated plans to tweak his running scheme this offseason, but if the team felt it needed to elevate the production of its running game dramatically, it likely would have added to its personnel this offseason. Instead, the Packers did not re-sign veteran Ryan Grant and conducted spring minicamp with Starks and second-year player Brandon Saine (70 career NFL snaps) as their top two runners.

(Alex Green, a third-round draft pick in 2011, was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.)

Starks has demonstrated strength and burst at times over the past two seasons, but the most important statistic of his career is that he has been healthy for only 16 games -- including the playoffs -- over the past three years. He missed his final season at Buffalo because of a torn labrum in his shoulder, was limited to seven games as a rookie because of a serious hamstring injury and was ineffective last season after spraining his knee and ankle in Week 11.

That, by definition, makes Starks' ascension a risk, but it's one the Packers figure they can manage as long as their passing game remains the crux of their offense. During a conversation last week, McCarthy widely praised Starks skills' -- including significant development as a pass protector -- while acknowledging his health will be the key.

"James [is a] very talented young man," McCarthy said. "The most important statistic for him is going to be availability. It has nothing to do with his skill set. He's getting better and better and better. … He's a young, raw guy that needs to play. If he can stay healthy, I think he'll make a significant jump as a player."

And in this offense, at least, that's probably enough.

Pressure point: Packers

May, 16, 2012
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Green Bay Packers and why.

Today is May 16. That leaves about 2 1/2 months before training camp and almost four months before the start of the regular season for reinforcements to arrive. But for the time being, there is only one player on the Packers' roster who seems suited to be a No. 1 back in the NFL.

It's difficult to know for sure, but from the outside it appears the Packers are clearing the road for James Starks to take over that role in his third NFL season. Veteran starter Ryan Grant has not been re-signed and the Packers did not draft a running back last month. Behind Starks are veteran fullback/short-yardage specialist John Kuhn and two second-year players in Alex Green and Brandon Saine; Green is recovering from a torn ACL in his knee.

Grant could always re-sign at a later date, but if not, the Packers are taking a bit of a leap in hoping that Starks can stay on the field for a full season. He missed the first 13 games of 2010 because of a hamstring injury and was limited during the second half of 2011 because of knee and ankle ailments. Overall, he's missed as many games (16) as he's played. The pressure is on Starks to demonstrate he is not a part-time back.
Ryan Grant/James Starks/John KuhnUS PresswireRyan Grant, James Starks and John Kuhn led the Packers running game in 2011.

In the early days of Mike McCarthy's tenure with the Green Bay Packers, it was fashionable to question his running game and contrast its production with the passing of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. The Packers' recent success amid the NFL's passing explosion has all but stifled such squawking, so it was notable last month when McCarthy brought up the issue unprompted at the NFL scouting combine.

Although he didn't provide much detail, McCarthy made clear he wants more from his running game in 2012.

"We feel we're maxing out the drop-back game in normal down and distance," McCarthy said. "Are we maxing out the run game in normal down and distance? I think it'd be safe to say no as we stand here today. Those are the types of things we are going to take a close look at."

I think we can all agree the Packers' running game has been an afterthought in recent seasons. As the first chart illustrates, they ranked at the bottom of most statistical categories -- including, importantly, attempts -- in 2011. McCarthy said he is "not really worried about how many times we run the ball" but plans to change "how we run the ball."

The second chart shows the Packers' run-pass ratios by down in 2011, one that -- like most teams -- progressively leans toward the pass as you move from first to third down.

McCarthy declined to explain because he hasn't presented his ideas to players yet. My guess is that whatever changes he has in mind -- possibly using different kinds of running plays in certain situations -- won't be obvious to the casual observer. To me, the proverbial elephant in the room is not how often the Packers run the ball or what kind of plays they use. It's who the Packers are going to hand the ball off to in the first place.

As of this moment, it's difficult to count on either of the Packers' top two tailbacks to be a feature back in 2012. Ryan Grant is 29 and appears set to test the free-agent market, while James Starks has quite frankly missed too much time with injuries to merit the Packers' full trust.

The third chart shows every Packers running back who had a carry last season. Alex Green, a third-round draft pick last season, is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Brandon Saine, who played on 69 snaps last season, was a practice-squad promotion.

Taken altogether, the running back position rises to one of the Packers' more underrated offseason areas of need. It's important for McCarthy to perform his micro-analysis and make the kind of subtle adjustments he's referring to, but its impact will be limited if the Packers don't address the personnel side of the issue.

Last month, McCarthy used words like "very consistent" and "solid" to describe Grant's season. Addressing Starks, he said: "James' availability, that's his issue. When James is available and he's playing week in and week out, he's a young player that gets better. But when he doesn't play he’s not going to make the progress. I think James is a very talented guy, very bright future, but his availability wasn't where you’d like it to be."

Starks played in 13 games last season, but knee and ankle injuries he suffered in Week 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers limited him to 13 carries over the Packers' final six regular-season games. In 2010, you'll remember he made only three regular-season appearances before taking over the position in the playoffs.

So over the course of two seasons, Starks has had two limited spans of good health and production: The Packers' four-game playoff push in 2010 and the first 10 games of 2011. Is that enough to be counted on as a lead back in 2012? Based on McCarthy's comments, I don't think so.

It's quite possible the Packers could make a committee system work with Starks, John Kuhn and perhaps Green or Saine. And I would agree with those who don't want to see the Packers devote too many additional resources to their offense, not when their defense crashed in 2011 and could use depth and upgrades at several positions. Perhaps McCarthy's schematic analysis is designed to minimize the need for additional personnel.

But this isn't the time for committing to a committee system, not as we stand on the doorstep of the NFL's player acquisition period. Committees are what teams settle on, not what they plan for. And at the moment, their personnel situation in the backfield merits at least an attempt to enhance. If other priorities ultimately trump it, so be it. We'll soon see if the Packers agree.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 23, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 16:

Busted rivalry: When the NFL released its schedule this spring, many of us had high expectations for a late-December matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Instead, an injury-devastated Bears team will limp north as a (deserved) 13-point underdog. It's possible the Packers will have clinched home-field advantage even before taking the field Sunday night, if the San Francisco 49ers lose Saturday at the Seattle Seahawks. If not, the Packers will attempt to secure it against a team playing without quarterback Jay Cutler, running backs Matt Forte and Marion Barber, and receiver Johnny Knox. Third-string running back Kahlil Bell is expected to start, pairing with third-string quarterback Josh McCown -- who has a history of helping the Packers' playoff positioning. (See: Noooooooooooooooo!) One other interesting bit of history: The Packers are one of five teams in NFL history to open a season 13-0 and then lose in their 14th game. All four of the other teams lost their 15th game, too. That list includes the 2009 and 2005 Indianapolis Colts, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 1998 Denver Broncos.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireGreen Bay's James Starks is expected to play Sunday against the Bears.
Packers' run game: For several reasons, Sunday night's game would be an obvious target for the Packers to try to enhance their running game. James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) are expected to return. The Packers will start a makeshift offensive line that likely will include T.J. Lang at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard; the best way for offensive linemen to get comfortable is via run blocking. And it's also worth repeating that the Bears historically have done a good job limiting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' downfield opportunities. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers has completed only five of 26 attempts on throws against the Bears that traveled in the air 21 yards or more. He's thrown for one touchdown, a game-winner to receiver Greg Jennings in 2009, and two interceptions on those passes.

Detroit's challenge: The Detroit Lions will clinch a playoff spot Saturday if they beat the San Diego Chargers in what will likely be a raucous atmosphere at Ford Field. (There are also several scenarios to clinch this weekend even if they lose. They're noted in this post.) Hopefully everyone knows the Chargers are on one of their annual December rolls. They've won three consecutive games after a six-game losing streak. Since Norv Turner took the head coaching job in 2007, the Chargers are 20-2 in December. This will be no cakewalk.

Big targets: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers struggled earlier this season, but he has been the NFL's most efficient quarterback over the past three weeks based on Total Quarterback Rating. Rivers has hit a groove with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers that will pose significant matchup problems for the Lions. Malcom Floyd has 11 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games, while Vincent Jackson has caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has been sidelined in practice this week by a groin injury. Lions cornerback Chris Houston (knee) clearly wasn't 100 percent last week against the Oakland Raiders, and the team re-signed Brandon McDonald this week for extra depth. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) also remains sidelined, and backup Chris Harris was cleared Thursday to practice following a concussion.

Make it stop: If you're a big-picture observer, you see ample motivation for the Minnesota Vikings to lose Sunday at the Washington Redskins. One more victory by the Indianapolis Colts, in conjunction with two more Vikings defeats, would give the Vikings an excellent chance to secure the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft. A loss to the Redskins would extend the Vikings' losing streak to seven games, tying a franchise record set in their expansion season of 1961. But I'm not sure what would be worse: tying that record or extending their NFL record of games without an interception, which stands at nine. Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman has thrown at least one interception in his past 10 starts, and he is tied for the second-most interceptions in the NFL (18) despite missing three games this season. Something's got to give.



Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8