While the folks in Chicago are lamenting the loss of Jay Cutler for perhaps the rest of the season (or enough of it to ruin the team's playoff chances), there was another discouraging NFC North injury yesterday, with Packers RB James Starks suffering a sprained knee against the Bucs:
Starks was injured during the fourth quarter when he was bent over backwards in a pileup after a short run and his legs were caught underneath a defender. He had to be helped off the field by trainers and wasn't able to put much weight on his right leg.
Obviously, losing Starks isn't exactly a death blow to the Packers' quest to remain unbeaten. They still have Aaron Rodgers to go out there and casually throw for his usual four TD passes. But Starks' injury is significant because he's been the only bright spot in what has been an otherwise moribund Packers running game. Ryan Grant has shown no sign that he's as good as he used to be (take it from one of his fantasy owners). It's Starks who has been icing game after game with critical late first-down runs, causing opponents to throw their hands up in frustration. Starks is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. Grant averages only 3.7. The difference between the two has become more pronounced each week.
It's that little hint of a running game that has helped the Packers become historically dominant. Without Starks, the Packers run game is essentially a tool for keeping defenses honest, so that the passing game can do all the heavy lifting. We've said all season long that the Packers have three main weaknesses: the pass protection (diminished in impact by Rodgers' quick release and mobility), the pass defense, and the running game. But for ten weeks, the running game has been jusssssssst good enough, just effective enough to add something to the Packers' attack. Without Starks, it becomes an afterthought. So if you see the Packers fall to the Lions on Turkey Day, keep in mind how important Starks is to a perfect team. Much as it seems like it, Rodgers can't do it all on his own.