Let none misconstrue this post as declaring that it's time for the Packers to think about next year. It's not. While I still have a hard time believing that these beat-up, finesse-team Packers are going to make a serious playoff run, they're leading the division with four games to go and are headed towards an almighty showdown in Week 15 at Soldier Field, in which they could wrap up the division or at least take a firm grip on a wild-card spot. So that's not a concern. I just feel like this is the only conclusion you can draw from the Packers' mess at running back.
Ryan Grant, he of the two 1,200-yard seasons as a Green Bay starter, is back in a Packers uniform. As of Wednesday morning, he'd re-signed with the team after it became apparent that co-starter James Starks had suffered a serious knee injury in Week 13's game against the Vikings. The combination of Alex Green, John Kuhn and unknowns Johnny White and DuJuan Harris simply didn't look like enough for a playoff run for general manager Ted Thompson.
The math here is simple. Grant, whose contract expired this offseason, was not re-signed because the Packers liked what they had in Starks and Green. When Starks was injured over the summer and Green's recovery from knee surgery went slower than hoped, Thompson grabbed Cedric Benson off the street; he lasted five games before breaking his foot and being placed on (temporary, then permanent) injured reserve. Coach Mike McCarthy tried Green as the feature back for three games, in which he carried 64 times for 154 yards, a horrendous 2.4-yard average.
McCarthy then switched Green and Starks on and off against the Cardinals (combined 28 for 114, 4.07), rode Starks against the Lions (25 for 74, 3.0) and rotated the two against the Giants and Vikings (45 for 193, 4.28). Clearly, Green is at the least not ready to carry the load by himself. He needs a partner. Kuhn isn't it, and who knows what the Packers have in practice-squadders Harris and White? Grant and his vast experience with the system, not to mention career 4.3 yards per carry average, will be a welcome addition. Heck, Grant is turning 30 the day the Packers play the Lions at Lambeau (12/9/12), but he also has just 925 career carries; Benson had 1,529 when Green Bay signed him.
That's all well and good, but it was clearly an option of last resort. Grant's experience with the system didn't do him much good when the Packers signed Benson over him this summer, and it hasn't helped him stick on a NFL roster until now (four weeks with the Redskins, one carry, five yards). Signing him is anything but a long-term solution.
Thompson has typically stocked up on running backs through trades, low-round draft picks and the occasional veteran signing. He plucked Samkon Gado off the street and traded him for Vernand Morency, found Grant for a sixth-round pick from New York and signed FB/RB John Kuhn off the street. In eight drafts, Thompson selected just four running backs: Brandon Jackson (2nd round, 2007) DeShawn Wynn (7th, '07), Starks (6th, '10) and Green (3rd, '11). Out of all those names, only the durable Grant has flourished as a solid starter in Green Bay's zone running scheme. The jury is out on Starks and Green, but the former's long injury history and the latter's current up-and-down season makes me leery about settling on either as the franchise's starting RB for next year and beyond.
Fortunately, there's a favorable NFL trend at work for the Packers. Running backs are being valued less and less in the draft, due to the declining importance of the position and due to expense; a NFL player's second contract usually covers him into his thirties, by which time most running backs have declined significantly. The wear and tear (injuries) on most RBs is high as well, so it doesn't make sense to spend too high a pick on them unless you're dealing with a truly elite talent.
In 2008, five running backs were first-round picks. 2012 featured three, but two were the 31st and 32nd picks; 2011 had just one RB drafted in the first round, and he was at No. 28. The value is dropping, which means that if the Packers wind up in the playoffs, they should still end up in position to draft a quality running back. And since the uninjured Packers have few holes other than RB and center, I make it a better-than-even chance that Green Bay has a new starter at the position come April. Which means I get to eat a bag of crow for blustering that the Packers were fine at the position in June.