For a team that gets its nickname from a bird, it’s only fitting that the Arizona Cardinals are known for their high flying offense.
The wide receiver trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston make it tough for opposing teams to game plan. But even the best passing game will only get you so far in the NFL.
That’s why coach Ken Whisenhunt will try to get the Cardinals to take on the talents of another bird commonly found in the Arizona desert: the roadrunner.
With Whisenhunt back to calling the plays, running back Tim Hightower playing with a year of experience under his belt and the drafting of Chris “Beanie” Wells, it’s obvious that the biggest change in Arizona’s playbook will be a bigger emphasis on the running game.
The pair of Hightower and Wells will give the franchise a luxury it never has had: A pair of young, fast and tough running backs. If the two can became a potent one-two punch, it would complete the vision fans had when Arizona hired Whisenhunt.
Many expected in 2007 when the Cardinals hired Whisenhunt that the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator would try to make Arizona into a run-first team. After all, Whisenhunt had just won a Super Bowl with the tough and speedy pair of Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
However, it quickly became evident that the Cardinals didn’t posses the tools needed for such an offense. The offensive line couldn’t open holes and Edgerrin James couldn’t break tackles.
In 2008 it looked as if Whisenhunt would get his wish of a more balanced offense. Hightower took over the starting spot from James in Week Eight and quickly got the hopes of Cardinals fans up.
Hightower rushed for 109 yards in his first start, but didn’t even reach 40 yards in a game the rest of the season. The Cardinals ended up rushing for a league-worst 1,178 yards.
However poorly the running game performed in the regular season, it did offer a glimpse of what could be in store for the franchise with its performance in the playoffs.
There’s no doubt that the passing game and defense got the majority of the spotlight during Arizona’s run to the Super Bowl. But the Cardinals don’t get past the Philadelphia Eagles without its running game that found itself in the postseason.
Just take a look at the most crucial point in the NFC Championship Game for the Cardinals. With Arizona down 25-24 in the final minutes, it needed to convert a 4th-and-1 from the Eagles’ 49 yard line.
With its first-ever Super Bowl berth on the line, the team didn’t go with a quick slant pass to Fitzgerald; it gave the ball to Hightower.
But while the running game was serviceable and made clutch plays in the playoffs, it still has a long way to go to become a force in 2009.
James is no longer around to teach Hightower. Wells is all ready hearing whispers that he’s too fragile and won’t make it through the season.
But there is little doubt that Whisenhunt will do everything in his power to get his running game going. If he can achieve that, it could finally make the Cardinals a complete and balanced team.