GREEN BAY, Wis. - Cedric Benson wasn't about to look too far ahead. Having spent an entire offseason unemployed – despite back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals – the Green Bay Packers' new running back isn't looking any further down the road than Thursday night's preseason game in the Queen City against his former club.
But Benson knows there is opportunity in the Packers' backfield, beyond Thursday night and perhaps beyond 2012, even though he is under contract only for one season at the NFL seven-year veteran minimum of $825,000.
"I don't want to put my foot in my mouth. I don't really want to get into all that right now," Benson said after Sunday's practice, his first in pads with his new team. "Right now, I'm focused on one week at a time."
But when it comes to the Packers' running game, Benson could be the focus for the foreseeable future. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said third-year back James Starks, who entered camp as the starter before suffering a turf toe injury in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at San Diego, "is probably a couple weeks" away from being able to return to practice.
"It depends on the swelling and obviously turf toe can be a difficult injury," McCarthy said.
It's the latest in a run of bad luck for Starks, who missed his entire senior season at the University of Buffalo with a major shoulder injury, missed the first half of his rookie season with a torn hamstring suffered during the pre-training camp conditioning test and was hampered down the stretch last season by knee and ankle injuries suffered Nov. 20 against Tampa Bay.
It also could mean that Benson, who confidently set another 1,000-yard as his goal upon his arrival last week, might end up being the team's go-to back after all. While second-year back Alex Green got the first snap with the No. 1 offense in all the 11-on-11 periods in practice Sunday, he's still on a limited snap count because he's coming off a torn ACL in his left knee suffered last October. Benson, meanwhile, is shaking off some rust and getting his conditioning up but is perfectly healthy for a 29-year-old running back.
"I feel good. I feel really good," Benson said. "(I) had a lot of fun running around and getting some live reads, the defensive line coming off the ball, the ‘backers flowing, getting a chance to make someone miss in the secondary. It felt good to run around, and it felt good to get back in the rhythm of tackle football.
"I feel like I was in the best shape I could've been coming in, but it's always a different animal when you put those shoulder pads on and you've got them strapped tight and you're trying to breathe and stuff. So I got a little winded at times, but I was able to recover fast, so I know I was in good shape."
Benson has been working overtime on learning the Packers' playbook with running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, having never played in the West Coast offense before. He's also been sitting in on the quarterback meetings with Aaron Rodgers.
"For the first time ever we've had a running back sitting in on some quarterback meetings, so he's going to extra meeting times trying to learn the offense, trying to learn checkdowns," Rodgers explained. "He's sitting next to me in meetings, so he wants to learn and it's fun to have a veteran guy who's really hungry. It's going to be fun to get out there and see what he adds to the offense."
Explained Benson, "I just think the more times I can hear it, the better it gets for me. There's going to be times when I'm also going to need to know the route combinations. The more work I can get in there, especially being with Aaron and the quarterbacks in general and just hearing those guys make calls and go through film and some of their progressions, it gives you more knowledge not only of the game but also of the playbook."
In limited work Sunday, Benson caught McCarthy's eye. While Benson might not be caught up on the offensive playbook on his iPad, he knew enough to let his natural talent shine through.
"I thought he was fast in the hole. I was impressed with him," McCarthy said. "I thought he had a couple runs where you could see his natural inside run instincts, the way he drops his weight, his footwork, I didn't expect it to be right on the money, especially with our quarterbacks and what we're asking him to do compared to what he's done in the past. I thought he had a good first day (in pads)."
To that end, don't be surprised if Benson continues to impress – and winds up being the Packers' lead back, despite being on the street until a week ago. And it all starts Thursday against the Bengals.
"Honestly, I'm trying to run for 100 yards before I get out of there. That's exactly what I want to do," Benson said. "And I also want to be very sound on my protections, very sound on my routes. I want to get out and catch some balls, focus on reading their defense quick – getting a fast read so I can get out and make some plays in the passing game as well.
"I'm really looking forward to it. Needless to say, we're playing the Bengals this weekend, so I'm going to be real excited about getting back out there against those guys. Really, I've got to get back in my rhythm."