GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy’s demeanor said it all, but in case it didn’t, Josh Sitton’s choice of words made the disappointment crystal clear.
First, understand this: McCarthy detests drama. So when he stepped to the podium Tuesday afternoon to break the news that starting running back DuJuan Harris would be headed for season-ending injured reserve with a right knee injury, he chose his words carefully, not wanting to bemoan the team’s latest health-related setback.
But McCarthy’s words didn’t matter. In eight years as the Green Bay Packers head coach, it’s hard to remember him ever being so obviously downtrodden about a player getting hurt as he was Tuesday about Harris – and with the Packers’ recent injury history, the guy’s had plenty of practice.
McCarthy was morose for two reasons: One, he likes the kid, whom quarterback Aaron Rodgers – another Harris fan – affectionately calls “The Used Car Salesman,” since Harris was working at a car dealership in Jacksonville before the Packers signed him to the practice squad last October.
And two, McCarthy’s creative offensive mind had dreamed up quite the running game for Harris and rookie second-round pick Eddie Lacy to provide this season – until Harris reinjured the patellar tendon in his right knee against Seattle on Friday night and a second opinion confirmed Tuesday that he’ll need season-ending surgery to repair it.
“Every offseason, you go through evaluations of your offense, you do offseason studies, you project how you envision your offense looking and then you kind of confirm things after the draft,” said McCarthy, who has promised time and again that the Packers’ running game would be improved this season. “You have a vision, packages in place on how you’re going to start the season. I’ll just tell you this: DuJuan was a big part of particularly my individual focus for this season.
“Last week was really the first opportunity to play DuJuan and Eddie Lacy in a game as kind of a 1-2 type punch format, and that has now changed.”
Sitton, the Packers Pro Bowl guard, was more succinct.
“Well,” Sitton said, pausing for a few seconds. “It sucks, honestly.
“He's a hell of a player. He was going to be a big part of this offense. You've got to move on. We know more than anybody. I think you've got to move on fast. The other guys will step up and play. Eddie (Lacy) is going to be a big factor for us. It's just something (where you say) ‘Next man up’ and roll with it."
That next man up is Lacy, who will now need to shoulder even a greater load. The problem is that despite having three more halfbacks to choose from – veterans James Starks and Alex Green, and rookie fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin – the Packers don’t have a clear-cut option to be the No. 2 part of that 1-2 punch.
“We still have a stable,” a surprisingly upbeat Harris said in the locker room after the news broke. “Those guys are doing a good job. I know we’ve been having a little tough preseason so far, but it’s preseason and we’ll get all that stuff out of the way. I see those guys running pretty strong this year.”
But who will it be?
“(We’re) fortunate enough to have a guy we drafted in the second round (in Lacy) that’s a good runner, a fourth-rounder we drafted (in Franklin) and two guys that have performed in the NFL at a high level (in Starks and Green),” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt explained. “James, in 2010 he was a key cog in this offense getting to the Super Bowl with his ability to run, and Alex carried the load last year for us.
“It’s always great to have depth because that position is such a tough position to stay healthy for the whole season.”
The Packers know that. Last season, five different players served as the team’s lead back, as Green carried 135 times for 464 yards (3.4-yard average), Starks ran 71 times for 255 yards (3.6-yard average), veterans Cedric Benson ran 71 times for 248 yards (3.5-yard average) and Ryan Grant ran 31 times for 127 yards (4.1-yard average), and Harris burst onto the scene late and ran 34 times for 127 yards (4.6 yard average).
Of those who remain, Starks is the most experienced of the group, with 320 career carries (including playoffs) for 1,292 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. But he’s never played a full 16-game season, and he managed just six games last year before, just as he seemed to be emerging, he took a hit to the knee and missed the last four regular-season games and both playoff games.
“I think you have to be excited about James Starks’ camp,” McCarthy said. “He’s practiced every single day, which is something that was important for him to do. His availability has been the highest of his career. He runs very hard. He’s contributed a little more on special teams, which he hasn’t done in the past. So there’s definitely steps that James made throughout training camp.”
Alas, some of those steps have been backward. Starks actually started the Aug. 9 preseason opener against Arizona, but he managed just 38 yards on 12 carries (3.2-yard average), then lost a fumble at St. Louis on Aug. 17. He didn’t even see the field against the Seahawks until garbage time, when 1 minute 53 seconds remained in the game, and he enters Thursday night’s preseason finale at Kansas City having carried 15 times for 42 yards (2.8-yard average). He’s also been inconsistent in reading blocks and, more troublingly, picking out the correct threats in pass protection.
“I think it was a little knee-jerk reaction for everybody to say he was in the doghouse because of the fumble,” Van Pelt said. “We were in a situation that we had other backs that needed to get in there and look at. It was just unfortunate that happened to be his last rep.
“After the game where he fumbled, he was a little down in the dumps. He obviously was disappointed he put it on the ground. He’s not a guy who sits around and mopes and whines. He accepts whatever comes his way and is willing to contribute. James, he’s been great this camp. Hopefully, this week will be a chance to go in there and redeem himself.”
Green has had a solid but unspectacular camp, although he did reel off a 31-yard run in the fourth quarter Friday night, Then again, his other 13 carries have gone for a combined 31 yards.
Green became the Packers’ the starting running back last year after Benson’s season-ending foot injury, but his surgically repaired knee became an issue and he faded late in the year.
“He looks good,” Van Pelt said. “He’s done everything with his body that he has to do to get back. He still does his exercises to get healthy and he’s looked as good as I’ve seen him since I’ve gotten here.”
After the draft, some hypothesized that Franklin would challenge Lacy for the starting job. Instead, based solely on performance and not draft status, he’s been the least impressive of the bunch.
“He’s such a quick twitch guy to start with, he needs to slow everything down. He’s too fast at times,” Van Pelt said. “I think sometimes when you get those quick guys, they have a tendency to be in the area a lot faster than the other guys. He needs to run with a little more pace, a little more patience, but he’s working on it.”
At this point, the entire group is a work in progress. Throw out Green’s 31-yard run against the Seahawks, and the Packers’ run game was putrid: Green’s other carry went for no gain; fullback John Kuhn had one carry for 3 yards; Harris had three carries for 2 yards; Franklin had 4 carries for 1 yard; and Lacy had eight carries for minus-5 yards.
Lacy’s numbers were a bit misleading, though. He had an 11-yard run on his first carry wiped out by a questionable holding call; lost 3 yards on his first carry of the third quarter when backup center Greg Van Roten missed his block; and he also caught a pass in the right flat that went backward from Graham Harrell, making it technically a run for negative-6 yards.
“It’s always concerning if you don’t run the ball well enough,” Van Pelt said. “That’s a concern that needs to be addressed and fixed, but I’m not concerned with (Lacy’s) ability to run the football, no.
“You’re going to get a good look in this last game with those other guys. They should get an equal amount of reps. It’ll be good for (them) to be in there, be consistent and show us what (they’ve) got.”
Harris, meanwhile, will have to wait until next year.
“I’ve still got the same hunger; I’ll still keep the same attitude and everything. Just after the surgery, I’ve just got to work my butt off to get back to 100 percent and when I do, you’ll see me again,” Harris said. “(This) definitely (is) not ending my career. Don’t think everything is over, because it’s not.
“It does make it tough, because Coach Mike is a great coach and I love playing for him. I’m going to bust my butt for him, not let him down. But like I said, this is all for the good, I’ll be back, and I should be a lot faster than I am.
“Those guys can still do it. I’ve got faith in those guys, and the whole group is strong, and they’ll get the job done.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde