Out of all the potential storylines I thought would be big for the Packers this year, the saga of the starting running back wasn't one of them. But now, after just one lackluster showing and a turf toe injury from James Starks, apparently the entire Packer backfield is going to hell in a handbasket. Ted Thompson is reportedly going off his rocker by signing Cedric Benson off the veteran running back scrap heap instead of Ryan Grant, leading just about every Packer journalist to lose their collective minds and blow up the internet with rampant speculation over why a Super Bowl winning general manager would sign a guy he likes as opposed to a guy that the fans like.
I don't have a good answer as to why Ted Thompson signed Cedric Benson over Ryan Grant, and I'm not sure I need one. It's Ted's job to sign the players that he thinks fit the best with the team, and that's what he did here. However, I do have a couple thoughts and questions about this situation, so here goes.
First of all, I think Packerpedia has a good idea as to why the Packers may have signed Benson over Grant. Basically, they think that since Grant's contract was coming due at the same time as the Favre fiasco was happening in Green Bay, Grant's agent played the Packers against themselves and got more money than he should have. Ted Thompson hates to pay more for something than it's worth, and he may believe that's what he did with Grant. Could he be spiteful enough to try to stick it to Grant now? I doubt it, but football people can have long memories.
Secondly, I agree with Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (whose Packer writings are almost always top notch, by the way) when he suggests that Benson may offer a "closer" role that neither Grant nor James Starks could fill particularly effectively over the years. The theory is that the Packers could have more close games this year and could use a between the tackles pounder to run down the clock at the end of the game. Grant was never one to shed contact very well and Starks hasn't shown he can stay healthy long enough to do that job either. Could Benson be that guy? Maybe, but here's the one fly in that theory's ointment: Benson holds a career 3.9 yards per carry average, about a third of a yard shorter than Grant. If you're looking for an end game runner, you're going to want more yards per carry than that.
Thirdly, I'm wondering what this means for the young backs on the roster. With Starks nursing tender toes and Benson getting up to speed, it definitely means more work for Alex Green and Brandon Saine in the short term. This option excites me, because it means we'll be able to get more of a look at what each of these young players can do. However, once everyone gets healthy, things may get interesting, since they'll suddenly have four backs on the roster (presumably) worth keeping around. Obviously they can't keep all of them...so who gets cut? My money would be on Benson suddenly finding himself without a job once again, but that depends on how quickly everyone returns from injury.
Finally, I need everyone to take a deep breath and stop worrying about the running backs on the best passing offense in the NFL. Let's be real: worrying about the running game when you have Aaron Rodgers and Company passing the ball is like buying a Lamborghini and worrying about the leg room in the back seat. I'm not saying the running game isn't important, but it's a much smaller cog in the offensive machine than it used to be. At this point, it's more about efficiency and protecting Rodgers in passing situations than anything else, and if the Packer backs can prove that they can carry the ball for about 4.2 yards every time they get a chance in addition to stopping crazy linebackers from pancaking the reigning MVP, the offense will be just fine.
[PS - my biggest question upon learning about the official signing was what number Benson would wear. He's been number 32 since his college days, but that number is currently taken by safety Micah Pellerin. In the short term, the Packers have come up with a creative solution, as pictured below. Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting story.]