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Cards’ Running Game Must Emerge, Season in Jeopardy

Running Backs Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells have disappointed through the first half of the season, but there's still time to make a second half running game surge if Whisenhunt commits to it

This was supposed to be Beanie Wells‘ breakout year.  This was supposed to the year that Arizona finally climbed out of the cellar in rushing yards per game.  The Cardinals, however, average only 92 yards per game rushing, good for 25th in the NFL.  It’s one half of a terribly ineffective offense that currently ranks 31st in the NFL.  With the season in serious jeopardy this week, Ken Whisenhunt still doesn’t appear committed to running the football, even after all the turmoil at the quarterback spot.  It’s a development evidenced by the fact that despite leading the entire second half last week, Arizona rushed the ball only 11 times.

Statistically, this is Arizona’s worst year running the ball since Whisenhunt took over four years ago.   According to stats compiled by Greg Esposito of Sports 620 KTAR, Arizona’s 162 rushing attempts and five touchdowns through the first eight games are both lows during the Whisenhunt era.  In addition, the Cardinals’ 703 rushing yards is second lowest.  Only last season’s 687 yards at the eight game mark is lower.

The sum is equal to its parts, so the saying goes.  As such, Wells and Hightower have individually regressed this season:

  • Wells – 2010: 70 carries for 231 yards (3.3 yards/carry) and two touchdowns.  2009: 70 carries for 310 yards (4.4 yards/carry) and one touchdown.
  • Hightower – 2010: 66 carries, 337 yards, 5.1 yards/carry, and two touchdowns.  2009: 78 carries for 283 yards (3.6 yards/carry) and five touchdown.

Obviously, Wells has had knee issues all season, but his number of carries are exactly the same.  His yards per carry is way down from 4.4 to 3.3.  It just doesn’t seem like he’s the same dynamic power runner, which is probably due to his knee injury.  Nevertheless, the Cardinals are missing his production.  Hightower actually has more yards on fewer carries this year, but his touchdown total is down and his fumbles are still up.  These stats make the following statement by Ken Whisenhunt quite baffling:

We’ve run the ball better this year than we have in the past.  I think we’ve made progress with that.

Well, no coach, you haven’t.  Whisenhunt has been recalcitrant in his adherence to a pass first offense.  It’s consistent with his affirmation all throughout the summer and in the pre-season that the Cardinals aren’t going to change up the offense.  When your personnel changes drastically (and it did) sometimes you need to change with it.

Since Whisenhunt took over in Arizona, the Cardinals have had one of the premiere passing attacks in the NFL.  During the Kurt Warner golden era, the team was built around Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Breaston.  In 2008, all three receivers recorded 1,000 yards receiving.  That is truly an amazing achievement for an offense.  Only four other teams in NFL history have accomplished that feat (2004 Colts, 1995 Falcons, 1989 Redskins, and the 1980 Chargers).  Fifty percent of that group is gone, though.  It’s time for the Cardinals to change their identity.  That’s not an easy task and Whisenhunt has so far failed to make much headway.

Overall, Arizona has called 162 rushing plays out of 442 total offensive plays, making them a 64% – 36% pass-run team this season.  In 2009, the Cardinals were a 63% – 37% pass-run team.  If you aggregate out this year’s play calling tendencies, assuming they remain the same, the Cards will actually run slightly less than last season.  Finally compare the 2008 season, which was one of the most prolific and productive passing attacks in Cardinals’ history; Arizona was 66% – 34% pass-run.

It’s seems ludicrous that the Cardinals could end up passing the ball nearly as much, and by the inverse, run as little as the 2008 Super Bowl offense.  The pieces just aren’t there this year to win games through the air.  An offensive line that is particular weak in pass protection and poor quarterback play explain Arizona’s struggles to rack up passing yards, despite Whisenhunt’s best efforts to do so.

To be fair, it’s difficult to get a running game going if you’re constantly trailing.  Arizona has trailed at the half in six games and held a lead only once (last week) in their first eight games this season.  They were tied against the Rams going into the half in Week 1.  Aside from the indictment imposed by those statistics, they illustrate the point that the Cardinals have been trailing their opponents the entire season, which provides little opportunity to establish the run.

The game starts scoreless, though.  Each team has an equal opportunity to direct their offenses as they see fit.  If Whisenhunt would just stamp the Cardinals with the run first label, I believe the offensive line, which is a drastically better run blocking unit, would embrace the challenge and own it.  It’s really about establishing the team’s identity before they even set foot on the field.  It would also add some attitude to a team that’s really trying to hold on to something after two demoralizing close losses.  A fourth straight loss would most likely render the remainder of the Cardinals’ 2010 season moot, except for the 2011 draft order of course.


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