Arizona Cardinals: Wells, Hightower or Stephens-Howling, Analyzing the Cards Run
Sunday's 13-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs should have effectively ended the Arizona Cardinals season.
But this is the NFC West, and, so weak is it, that not a single other NFC West team managed to capitalise on this. In spite of the huge loss, Arizona remain just two games back on the division leading Seattle Seahawks.
Winning the division would require help, of course, however nothing in the recent performances of Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco, showed nothing to demonstrate that they should not expect at least a little more help.
But if the Cardinals are going to capitalise on this gift, do their part, and win at least four of their six remaining games, something needs to improve.
Arizona are used to being amongst the worst teams rushing, so that particular statistic is no surprise, however, in the past few years, their high powered passing offence has more than made up for it.
In 2010, the Cardinals passing game has been all but useless, whereas the rushing game has looked to have potential.
But if Arizona are going to stand a chance of making a run for the playoffs, then it is going to have to come on the ground.
So, join me as we take a look at which running backs give Arizona the best chance of succeeding.
Beanie Wells: Big Threat Power Runner
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It would, at times, be easy to characterise first round draft pick Beanie Wells a bust.
The former college stand—out Ohio Buckeye has never really matched his college stats at an the pro.
In the run up to the draft, Wells was, at times a top-10 prospect, only slipping as far as the Cardinals because of questions about his durability. He was expected to be the starting running back at the Cards from day one.
Unfortunately, his averages have always been lower than expected, and the long, bruising runs up the gut, bowling over defenders as he went, which was his trademark in college, have never really materialised for the Cardinals.
In many ways, he was, and remains, exactly the kind of back Whisenhunt should love. A power runner, very much in the mould of many Steelers runners Whisenhunt had previously coached.
However, to characterise Wells as a bust is to underestimate just how dominant the Cardinals passing game was for the first year of his young career.
In 2009, in spite of an almost unstoppable passing offence, Wells still ran for almost 800 yards, second amongst all rookies after Knowshon Moreno.
In 2010, questions of durability have once again been raised, due to missing several games, and his production has been limited due to Arizona playing from behind so often, however, Wells should remain the go—to back at the Cardinals. Every time he touches the ball, you can almost feel that something fantastic could just well happen.
Wells has only averaged 3.5 yards per carry this season, and has not had any huge touchdown runs, but, is definitely the Arizona running back who is most likely to make things happen.
Running the ball up the gut, whether for two yards or 10 keeps defences honest, tired, and, given time, will get results. Running up the gut opens up the outside of the field, and will also ensure that the Pro Bowl calibre receivers Arizona have will get favourable matchups.
If Arizona expect to be productive at the running position, their only real option at this point, they need to put the ball in the hands of those most likely to make things happen for them, and now, that person is Beanie Wells.
Tim Hightower: Third Down Back with a Huge Upside
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It is no secret, I have never been completely sold on Tim Hightower.
My brother can't understand it. He looks at the statistics, and sees a very productive running back. Hightower has a better yards-per-carry average than Beanie Wells. He has rushed for more overall yards than him too, and more touchdowns.
Importantly, he also sees a player who is much more durable than Wells, too.
And I can't disagree with him on a single point.
Looking purely at the stats, Hightower is, in 2010 at least, a more reliable, more productive back.
The difference is, as an Arizona fan, I don't look purely at stats, I watch the man, and in Hightower, unfortunately, I do not see the sort of running back who can take us the distance in 2010.
Don't get me wrong, Hightower is a good player, exactly the sort we need, and need to get on the field, he is just not the sort of player who changes the complexion of a game.
My biggest problem with Hightower is that he always looks like he is running for the first down marker, not the end zone. That is fine, in a full back, and there are times in the game, when that is what you need your running backs, and receivers to do too, but with Hightower, that seems to be all he ever does.
There is no sense of urgency about him. He always looks tired, and never looks likely to get past the secondary and break off a big, momentum changing run.
He will get you positive yardage when you need it, and, more importantly, will get first downs more often than not, but you can't help but feel that, sooner or later, someone on the defence will catch him, and when they do, the chances of him breaking the tackle are negligible.
He is, to me, the very definition of a third—down running back. You can count on him for those last few yards, but not a lot more. He is definitely valuable when games need closing out, but not when chasing a big deficit, and, unfortunately, Arizona find themselves in the latter situation much more often than the former.
Fortunately, for Hightower, he is as big a threat catching balls as he is running with it. In 2009, Hightower had over 1,000 all-purpose yards, with over 40 percent of those coming through the air.
Any time he is on the field, he adds something which Arizona don't have at many other positions, dependability, and, now he seems to have improved his ball security issues, he continues to have a place on the Arizona Cardinals, however, it is hard to envision that role being primary running back for the remainder of the season.
LaRod Stephens-Howling: Pint-Sized Speedster and Return Specialist
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In LaRod Stephens-Howling, known to the fans as 'Hyphen', the Arizona Cardinals seem to have chanced upon something very, very special.
Stephens-Howling is an undersized running back with an ability to make huge plays.
He has earned his reputation as a kick return specialist, where he has already got two touchdowns this year, but he has something else.
Hyphen has an understanding of the game, an ability to make quick decisions and spot lanes uncommon for someone so young.
Also, did I mention that he is quick?
Stephens-Howling has an elusiveness which stretches defences, and an extra gear which means that, given a small seam, few defenders can keep up with him.
He is certainly not yet an every down back, but in the absence of a dependable passing game, giving the ball to Stephens-Howling is the next best thing.
I have said it before, Stephens-Howling reminds me of another undersized running back, Maurice Jones-Drew. Like MJD, LaRod Stephens-Howling he is small for the position, but also quick, elusive and frustratingly difficult for defences to defend against.
He is the sort of back who can turn the game on it's head, and make positive yardage, seemingly by nothing but the force of his own will.
He is particularly dangerous running around the outside, something few defences have been able to stop the Cardinals from being successful at, and can be explosive.
Thus far, Arizona have chosen to limit Stephens-Howling's on field activity to kick returning, to keep him fresh for his return duties, however, unless Coach Whisenhunt wants to watch his season, and possibly Arizona career, slip away from the sidelines, he needs to give his team chances to make big plays, and few come much bigger than the sort of runs Stephens-Howling looks capable of.
Jason Wright or Free Agents: Other Options for the Cards
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Arizona's third running back has been Jason Wright to this point in the season.
There is very little to say about him.
On the plus side, he is somewhat of an unknown quantity, which means he could, in theory, take defences by surprise. Thus far, however, theory and practice have been very different things.
He has not made any impact on the field, and has not shown any signs of being able to do so.
There are also not a lot of free agent running backs at present.
One of who could prove productive for the Cardinals is former Pittsburgh Steeler Willie Parker.
Parker left the steel city after the 2009 season, and, after a short, and disastrous, stint with the Washington Redskins was released in final cuts before the start of the regular season.
Parker is certainly no longer at his 2006 team MVP best, and is looking like his playing career is all but finished, but he also knows Coach Whisenhunt, the sort of offence he desperately wishes to run.
He is no longer a starting running back, but is experienced, knowledgable, and could add a lot of experience to the Cardinals otherwise young rushing corps.
In Parker, Coach Whisenhunt would be reunited with one of the biggest stars from his tenure at Pittsburgh, and a running back who could prove a valuable mentor to the Cardinals running backs.