<
>

As expected, Starks sparks Packers ...

PHILADELPHIA -- I've heard of LeBron James, James Franco and the King James Bible. But until the Green Bay Packers wadded up the Philadelphia Eagles like a cheesesteak wrapper Sunday, I'd never heard of James Starks.

I know him now. So do the Eagles, who are playoff one-and-dones after Starks and one other relative Packers no-name deposited Philly in the wild-card dumpster.

Is there anybody on the planet who thought a sixth-round rookie running back from Buffalo -- who didn't play his senior year, didn't play in Green Bay's training camp and didn't make his NFL debut until a little more than a month ago -- would finish off the Eagles with 23 carries and a Packers season-high 123 yards? Did Starks?

"No clue at all," said Starks, who seemed as shocked as the Eagles' defense.

The Packers beat Philly, 21-16, at Lincoln Financial Field, giving Starks something to remember and giving Saturday night's playoff opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, something to think about. And all because of Starks, who didn't know he was on Sunday's active roster list until Saturday's team walk-through.

"I really go into practices every week not knowing what's going on,'' Starks said.

You can't make this stuff up. Starks was a scout team cornerback as a freshman at Buffalo. When Turner Gill took over the program in 2006, he moved Starks to quarterback. Then he saw Starks run.

"Once he had a ball in his hands, something special happened,'' said Gill, speaking by phone from Dallas on Sunday evening, where he is attending a convention as Kansas' head coach. "I told him, 'Your future is going to be running the ball.' He had it."

In three years Starks became the school's leading rusher. Happy ending, right?

Except that Starks missed his senior season because of a shoulder injury. But Gill, who had been the Packers' director of player development in 2005, kept pushing Starks to Green Bay scout and friend Alonzo Highsmith. Highsmith pushed the Packers and Starks got drafted in the sixth round as a flier pick.

Starks wasn't exactly glued to the TV that day. He was with his family, eating popcorn and playing word puzzle games.

"I didn't really want to see [the draft],'' Starks said, "so I stayed by the table."

A bad hammy kept him out of training camp and the first six weeks of the regular season. He didn't play until Dec. 5 and has been on and off the inactive list since.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is your new Packers rookie record holder for most yards in a playoff game. An afterthought becomes a star.

Not even his Packers teammates pretended this was supposed to happen.

So, Greg Jennings, was the plan for Starks to get that many carries today?

"Yeah, we wanted him to run every single play,'' Jennings said, unable to keep a straight face.

Can you blame him? The Packers, for at least one wonderful Sunday, found a winning Lotto ticket. The 24th-ranked rushing team in the league actually discovered a rushing game. Yes, it was against a battered Eagles defense, but why quibble?

Starks wasn't the only Packers unknown to make a major difference. Ever hear of tight end Tom Crabtree? Didn't think so.

Crabtree, a second-year player from Miami (Ohio), caught exactly one pass Sunday -- a 7-yarder with eight seconds left in the first quarter. But it was for the Packers' first touchdown and for the lead, a lead they would never give up.

It was also Crabtree's first NFL TD. Instead of holding on to the ball, he threw it to the ground and cupped his hand to his helmet earhole.

"Taunting the crowd a little bit," said Crabtree, signed by the Packers as a free agent. "I've definitely never felt so good to be hated by so many people. I could just see it in their eyes."

Uh, Tom, that wasn't hate, it was disbelief. It was more, Who is that guy?

"And they'd have every right to think that,'' Crabtree said. "We're guys who didn't have a ton of experience or opportunities. But we practiced, we grinded and when our numbers were called, I think we really stepped up."

It was only Crabtree's fifth reception of the season. In fact, it was the first time he'd ever been targeted in the red zone. That's how tiny of a factor he was in the Packers' game plan for the Eagles.
Meanwhile, Starks surpassed his season total of rushing yards (101) and almost surpassed his number of total carries (29).

"I was very shocked, but I was ready," Starks said.

As it turns out, he and Crabtree shared a football connection. They played against each other in the Mid-American Conference.

"I definitely knew what kind of player he was," Crabtree said. "He was a star player there."

But the MAC isn't the NFL. It isn't the playoffs. It isn't Philly in early January. Or Atlanta -- and a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game -- in mid-January.

Starks was in street clothes and on the inactive list when Green Bay lost to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28. Crabtree dressed, but he didn't catch a pass.

"That team in Atlanta, we've got to control the ball," said Packers offensive guard Daryn Colledge.
You know what that means, right? More Starks, less surprise factor.

"Hard work does pay off," Starks said. "I'm a firm believer in that.''

The Packers believe too. They don't have a choice. After Sunday, Starks is the best they've got.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

MORE COMMENTARY ยป