Maybe Cedric Benson plays again this year, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the injured Green Bay Packers running back returns in time to help with a playoff push, maybe he doesn’t. He’ll at least have that chance after the team placed him on injured reserve with the designation of possible return later in the year.
In the interim, however, this much is certain: The Packers will need Alex Green, James Starks or Brandon Saine to step up and help the scuffling offense by being a legitimate threat running the ball. And coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t care which one it is – he’s just hoping one of them comes through.
After announcing that Benson had been placed on the new IR list – which will allow him to return to practice in six weeks and play after eight weeks, if he’s cleared medically – the coach said Green will start Sunday night against the Houston Texans because he is the only one of the three running backs to have taken a regular-season snap from scrimmage this season. Starks hasn’t been active since suffering a turf toe injury at San Diego in the Aug. 9 preseason opener, and Saine has been limited only to special teams duty.
“I have no time for competition. We're going to take the hot hand,” McCarthy said after practice Wednesday. “Alex and James both got reps today (with the starters) and so did Brandon Saine. The first carry will be Alex Green. He's a little farther ahead than James is right now and that's the way we'll go. But we have three halfbacks and we'll utilize all three of them."
Green hasn’t played a ton – according to ProFootballFocus.com, Benson has taken 200 offensive snaps this season, compared to Green’s 29, all but two of which came against the Colts after Benson’s injury – but he knows this is his chance after missing most of his rookie season last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“It’s definitely an exciting opportunity for me. Not always good when somebody else gets hurt, but the opportunity presented itself and I understand that,” said Green, who carried nine times for 55 yards against the Colts, with 41 yards coming on a late explosive run that set up the Packers’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. “(I’m) not really nervous. I just feel comfortable, coming in with the offense. Come in here, try to get a win and get this thing going.
“I feel good. I feel confident. That’s the most important thing about being a running back is confidence.”
It’s unclear how committed the Packers will be to the ground game without Benson, who carried 71 times for 248 yards (3.5-yard average) before suffering a Lisfranc injury in his left foot against the Colts. When McCarthy fed Benson the ball, he delivered with 81 yards on 20 carries against Chicago on Sept. 13 and 84 yards on 18 carries against New Orleans on Sept. 30. He’d carried seven times for 20 yards against the Colts before the injury.
Given that McCarthy struck an optimistic chord about Benson returning later in the season, it’s unlikely that the injury will require surgery.
“We're definitely optimistic. We feel that he can come back,” McCarthy said. “A foot sprain is definitely a tough injury to come back from, but within that time frame we feel that he definitely has a chance. His history would tell you that he is going to come back and just with my time being around him, he's a true pro. He's been excellent. He spends a lot of time in the weight room. I could see him being one of those guys that comes back and plays the last four weeks of the season."
In the interim, the Packers are down to the three backs they appeared comfortable with throughout the offseason, when the team opted not to draft a running back or re-sign veteran Ryan Grant, who split time with Starks last season and was on the street until signing with Washington last month.
“It’s tough. Ced’s been great for us. He’s been a leader, he’s had a great attitude, he’s been a great example for those young guys about what a professional looks like,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
“With him on the shelf for a while, James Starks hops back in the mix, Alex Green ran the ball well when he had opportunities, and Brandon Saine has a lot of fans in the locker room and on the third floor and everybody’s excited about him and his opportunity. Those three guys will get some chances and we expect them to play well.
“Obviously, with Ced in there, we wanted to give him some opportunities – 15 to 20 rushes, bare minimum. I think it makes the backfield more of a running-back-by-committee with Alex and James and Brandon, but we’re still going to try to have balance -- probably more than we have in the past.”