GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Packers running back James Starks never wants to play another game like he did in Week 3 at Chicago.
Against the Bears in that game, Starks ran for five yards on 11 carries while also fumbling in the fourth quarter. After all the promise that he showed when he exploded onto the NFL scene last season -- including running for 315 yards in the playoffs to help Green Bay win Super Bowl XLV -- that performance was a step in the wrong direction.
But in the long run, it may have been just what Starks needed.
"It really helped me out, like, 'Wake up!'" Starks said. "'This isn't the same as last year. You've got to get better.' I remember how I felt coming off the Bears game. That basically just woke me up. I felt like I could've played better, so I felt like I let my team down."
Starks didn't keep those thoughts to himself. He shared them with Packers running back coach Jerry Fontenot after the game, which Green Bay still won, 27-17, despite Starks' late fumble.
"That performance there, I would imagine it was motivation for him," Fontenot said. "All I know is that the kid is motivated. He does want to do a good job. You can see it in the things that he does off the practice field."
The turning point for Starks' confidence this season came in Week 7 at Minnesota. The Packers had the ball up by six points with more than two minutes remaining in the game and all of the Vikings' timeouts still available.
Throughout the first 57 minutes of the game, Green Bay had run for 59 yards on 20 carries (2.95 average).
Even with Aaron Rodgers -- the league's most accurate passer -- at quarterback, play-calling head coach Mike McCarthy decided to hand the ball off to Starks.
Starks was given one simple instruction: Don't fumble. But he performed well beyond those expectations.
On his first run, Starks picked up 15 yards and forced Minnesota to burn its first timeout. Two plays later, he had a 20-yard run. Timeout Vikings. A 13-yard run later and Starks had successfully run the Packers to victory.
"I knew I could do it," Starks said, adding that it was one of the best drives of his career. "That was a great team effort."
But the biggest improvement in Starks' game this season has had nothing to do with running the ball. McCarthy and Fontenot both noticed how much better Starks has been in pass protection.
"That was the biggest hurdle that we had to cross during training camp," Fontenot said. "It's not been perfect, but he's made significant improvement. His recognition is good and his execution has actually been good all along, it's just been a matter of IDing what's going on around him and being able to get where he's supposed to be.
"He's done a great job of improving."
If Starks can continue getting better in pass protection, the coaching staff has plenty of faith in his running ability.
McCarthy commented this week that he's "not interested in a 1,700 yard back," but as this season has progressed, it has become clearer with every game that Starks is the preferred choice at running back in critical moments over veteran Ryan Grant.
Although Grant is technically the starter, Starks has 40 more carries this season and more than twice as many yards.
"He's a back that possesses some big play-making ability," Fontenot said. "His size and his elusiveness, he's contributed very well. I'm happy with where he is right now."
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