Are These Guys for Real? Arizona Cards Running Game Needs to Establish Identity

Rick HoffmanContributor IMay 19, 2009

TEMPE, AZ - MAY 2 :  Chris Wells #26 of the Arizona Cardinals runs during a team minicamp at the team training facility on May 2, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona.  (Photo by Jonathan Willey/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals struggled to establish any type of consistent running game last season as they finished 32nd out 32 teams with a 76.3 per game team rushing average. 

One would be lead to believe then that one of the number one primaries for the 2009-2010 AZ Cardinals would include finding some sort of answer to the glaring deficiencies in their running game as a whole. 

However, the Cardinals essentially turned the duties over to a tried, yet not really proven, second year man while they released a first class veteran, with over 10,000 yards to boot in his Hall of Fame career. 

The Cardinals instead relied heavily on the draft to update and develop their running game for the upcoming season.  So in reality, they didn't do very much to substantially or positively impact their team.  Unless you count subtracting established role players as doing something positive. 

But they did pick up that Beanie-Baby kid...

Now I will be the first to admit, the drafting of Chris "Beanie" Wells was a great pick and should be a nice step in the right direction concerning the Cardinals running game and future. 

Although I am one of those optimists who believe that Edgerrin James still has some life left in his career and hated to see him go—I can't help but salivate at the prospect of a backfield containing Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells for years to come.

If these two end up progressing into what they are projected to become, the Cards running game should be firmly intact and explosive for years to come.  And mark my words, Wells is going to become a star.  He is absolutely the real deal. 

But are they really going to be productive tandem for the Cardinals in 09-10? 

Before we get too excited we have to realize that the Cardinals are still the Arizona Cardinals and they are still trying to sell us a starting backfield of two unproven, basically rookies.

Now I know that Hightower did get a lot of good action (including 7 starts as the featured back) and he did have an impressive first game as a starter, showing flashes of brilliance against St. Louis with 22 carries for 109 yards.  But that was about it. 

As a matter of fact as the featured back for the Cardinals, Hightower was virtually non-existent and was all but replaced in the playoffs by the elder James.

In his six other games as a starter, Hightower had 64 carries for a total of 134 yards or an astounding 2.09 yards per carry average.  Looking back, it's no wonder the Cardinals had to rely on the air attack for the majority of the season.

The Cardinals do have a lot of high hopes for the rookie newcomer Wells and hope that he will be able to fit right into the overall scheme of the Cardinals offense should Hightower again struggle to establish himself as a starter this year. 

He is young, shows all the flashiness of a top first round running back draft pick—but he does face a lot of questions regarding his toughness and durability after an injury plagued his last season at Ohio State. 

Wells missed three games and some questioned his ability to stay healthy before the draft—which may have ultimately allowed him to drop into the Cardinals lap with the 31st overall pick. 

I say rest easy AZ fans—as I said, Wells foot injury only kept him out of three games and he still showed most of his explosiveness upon his return.  Plus, that was the first time in his collegiate career that he missed any real time due to injury. 

He carried the bulk of the load his sophomore year and rushed for over 1600 yards and despite missing the three games his junior year, he still ended up with 1197 yards on 207 carries to finish out his college career.  So if he can stay healthy, he definitely has the ability to carry the bulk of the load in the running game. 

But is the upcoming season, his rookie season, a bit too soon?  Especially in this system? 

If the Cardinals want to have these young stud running backs blossom into stars, they are going to have to fully incorporate them into their offensive scheme and give them each enough carries to remain in the flow of the game. 

The Cardinals are going to have to holster Warner's gunslinger arm for a few more plays this season in order for the running game for the Cardinals to develop and ultimately succeed. 

In numerous games last year, the Cardinals had over a 70-30 ratio in pass to rush plays and if they repeat that again this year, I have a feeling their running game is never going to fully establish any legitimate presence all season long. 

With names like Warner, Boldin and especially Fitzgerald guiding the offense, Wells and Hightower have a legitimate opportunity to create a real running attack in AZ this year and for many years to come. 

I have to admit, with a young speedster like Hightower and a crushing bruiser back like Wells—the future looks bright for the running game in the desert.  Which, if we look back in contrast—the team that beat them in that one Super Bowl game a few months back (those pesky Steelers) have long established their dominance through their electrifying and yet, equally bone-crunching, running game throughout the years. 

Hopefully with Whisenhunt at the helm, the Cardinals are finally doing the same.