When the Arizona Cardinals hired Bruce Arians to be their head coach back in January, few believed he would turn the organization around overnight. It was logical to think the franchise’s transformation would take time after a dismal season in 2013.
However, the Gridbirds proved that the only thing they needed to transform into playoff contenders was stability at the quarterback position. General manager Steve Keim and Arians delivered in a big way when they traded for Pro Bowl signal-caller Carson Palmer.
The 11th-year veteran out of USC has been an absolute godsend. Through 14 games, he has amassed 3,689 yards passing, 21 touchdowns through the air and a quarterback rating of 86.5. Yes, his interception numbers are high, but let’s remember a majority of his turnovers took place prior to Week 11.
Since Week 11, Palmer has only turned the ball over twice on 182 pass attempts. Kudos to Arians for recognizing his potential and offensive fit; nevertheless, the Coach of the Year candidate hasn’t had a flawless record amidst his tenure as head coach.
Some of the same mistakes he made early on in the season are continuously being made on a weekly basis. Without question, the most obvious error Arians persistently makes is his unwillingness to give running back Andre Ellington more touches.
Deep down, Arians has to be yearning to use the sixth-round pick out of Clemson more. Yet, for the sake of longevity, he will make it a point to keep Ellington’s workload low. Unfortunately for Arizona, this may prove to be its downfall offensively when it’s all said and done.
With two high-profile games left to play, the Cardinals will need to pull out all the stops if they want to make their first trip to the playoffs since the 2009 season.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the Cardinals will square off against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams are playing their best football of the year right now, one of them has already clinched the division and the other appears to be playoff bound.
This, in turn, means Arians needs to put his worries aside and unleash Ellington. As good as their offense has been during the second half of the season, No. 38 needs to log starter’s snaps from now until the end of the season.
To beat the Seahawks and 49ers, you have to play sound defense, while pounding the rock and controlling the clock. No one team is going to throw the ball down their throats, which is exactly why Ellington will have to be Arizona’s saving grace.
A heavy dose of Rashard Mendenhall will have the Cardinals’ players watching the playoffs from the comfort of their own homes. If you don’t believe me, take the time to examine the numbers. The difference between the two players, from a production standpoint, is staggering.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ellington is the 11th-best running back in the league. The 199-pound speedster is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, 3.5 yards after contact and 1.3 forced missed tackles per game.
Moreover, Ellington has garnered more yards on the ground than Mendenhall, despite carrying the ball less. This should come as no surprise considering he is only averaging 3.1 yards per carry and 1.7 yards after contact.
As far as the receiving numbers go, Ellington has proven to be a more proficient pass-catcher as well. On 49 targets, he has hauled in 34 passes for 351 yards and one touchdown. Mendenhall, on the other hand, has registered 16 receptions on 17 targets for 121 yards.
At this point, Mendenhall’s lone purpose is to score touchdowns in the red zone. To be fair, that’s the one thing he has done well this season. Nonetheless, if given the opportunity Ellington would snatch that role away from him too.
Arians can only avoid the inevitable for so long. There will come a time when he breaks down and gives in. When that time comes, Ellington will be ready. He will show the naysayers that the Cardinals were wrong for limiting his touches and being cautious in their approach.
Take a look around the NFL, there are other running backs of his size that have excelled in recent years. Like Ellington, Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles weighs in at 199 pounds. His sub-200-pound frame hasn’t held him back in 2013. In 14 games, Charles has tallied 311 total touches.
Another player who has shined is Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. Aside from being PFF’s highest-graded tailback, McCoy leads the league in rushing, is second in forced missed tackles and fourth in yards per carry.
He has accomplished all of this at a playing weight of 198 pounds.
The narrative that Ellington is too small and fragile to be a lead back needs to die. Even though a player’s stature can cloud the judgement of a head coach, coaches need to keep an open mind.
Furthermore, the coach needs to evaluate the player’s past and ask questions. For example, was the particular player injury prone in college? Did he ever suffer a serious injury that may prove to have long-term health effects?
In Ellington’s case, he was never labeled as injury-prone, nor did he ever suffer a serious injury. In 54 collegiate games, which spanned four years, he dressed and played in 49 of them.
Time is running out on the Cardinals’ season, and they can’t afford to finish 9-7 or 10-6. They have to finish with an 11-5 record to ensure a postseason appearance. It’s simple; the NFC is stacked this year and there will be a team that misses the playoffs at 10-6.
Can Arizona make an improbable run by beating Seattle and San Francisco in consecutive weeks?
It has the necessary talent to do so, but there’s no way it happens unless Arians unleashes Ellington and makes him the focal point of the offense.