Red run: Cardinals offense will undergo philosophy change in 2010
Retirement of Kurt Warner means more opportunities for Cardinals rushers
Tim Hightower was starter last year, but Beanie Wells has lead back potential
Cardinals also re-tooled their offensive line to make it more formidable
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Cardinals running back Beanie Wells has a different look this year. After a recent attempt to line his own hair turned out poorly, the former Ohio State star decided it was better to start from scratch. So he grabbed a razor, some shaving cream and went to work.
If Wells has his way, a smooth noggin won't be the only change fans notice in him. After a solid but unspectacular rookie season, the former first-round pick believes he is poised for a breakout season. The Cardinals relied on their passing game the past two seasons but are expected to lean on their running game this year following the January retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner. That should mean more opportunities for Wells and Tim Hightower, who split the workload last season.
"This is big for me," Wells said during a break in offseason team activities. "I feel like last year during the draft I wasn't selected where I expected to be or even where I was projected to go. I'm just out to show those 30 teams that passed on me that you passed on a great running back."
Wells, who was taken 31st overall in the 2009 draft, doesn't set personal statistical goals for a season, but he does admit that after running for 793 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie he's expecting a "drastic jump from those numbers." Should that be taken to mean he could double each of those stats? "Oh, yeah," Wells says. "Definitely."
The Cardinals' reliance on the passing game the past two seasons was understandable; they had a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback in Warner, whose 56 touchdown passes from 2008 to '09 ranked fifth in the NFL, and a stable of receivers that included Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and 1,000-yard wideout Steve Breaston.
However Warner stepped down after passing for 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns over his 12-year career with three teams, and Boldin was traded to Baltimore in March. Now everyone is waiting to see how the Cardinals will proceed. The expectation is they will seek to run the ball, control the clock and avoid putting too much responsibility on the shoulder's of former first-round pick Matt Leinart, who has yet to prove he's a legitimate starter. But coach Ken Whisenhunt says they will continue to play to their strengths, whatever that ultimately may be.
The players unquestionably are expecting more of a commitment to the run. Statistically, the Cardinals were not balanced in 2009, attempting 594 passes and 365 rushes. It's doubtful that will happen this year.
"There were times in the season where it was like, 'OK, everybody knows we're going to pass. There's no need for us to even get down in a stance,' " says left tackle Levi Brown. "In this game you want to feel like you're attacking. You can attack when you're passing but, for the most part, you're adjusting to your opponent. When you're run blocking, you can get up in this guy's chest, you can try to take advantage of your weight and strength. If we can balance that out and give people a little bit more to worry about, it changes up things. It makes you a little bit more dangerous."
The line became even more formidable -- particularly from a rushing standpoint -- with the signing of nine-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, whose forte is run-blocking. Other line changes include Brown moving from right tackle to left; Reggie Wells from left guard to right; and Brandon Keith getting the first shot at right tackle.
The group is big, talented and eager to throw its weight around. That brings a smile to the faces of Wells and Hightower, who led the team with eight rushing TDs last season and was second with 598 yards. Both agree Warner and the passing game were the strength of the offense in 2009, but they view this year as an opportunity to show they can hold their own.
"As a running back, that's what you prepare for all season," says Hightower. "That's what we've been grinding and getting in shape for, doing all the things in the weight room and on the field for -- the expectation of getting to carry the load a little bit more. Kurt was a great leader last year, but Kurt liked to throw the ball. He was good at that, and when that's the playmaker on your team you've got to do what you've got to do. But I think this year, hopefully, is going to allow us to mix it up and let a lot more guys step up. From my position and Beanie's position, that's a running back's dream, to be able to contribute."
Hightower started every game last season, but the workload was evenly split with Hightower getting 143 carries to Wells' 176. Wells averaged 4.5 yards a carry, Hightower 4.2. Despite the comparable stats, defensive coordinators see Wells as the bigger threat because he's bigger (6-foot-2, 229 pounds to 6-1, 222) and carries more power behind his pads. "Hightower is a good back, but Beanie has the stature and the ability to be a premier back," said an opposing defensive coordinator.
The Cardinals would appear to agree. Last December they began featuring the then-rookie, running him at least 13 times in four straight games; during that same time Hightower had more than six rushes just once. The two have a good friendship and are professional about their desire to be a featured back.
"We're both competitive," says Hightower. "We joke all the time about how we hate being taken off the field, I don't care if it's first down, goal line or third down, I hate being taken off the field. I want to be an every-down back. I grew up watching Walter Payton. I'm just competitive like that. Beanie is the same way. He loves making plays. We kind of feed off of that. At some point we both know we're going to be taken out of the game, but we're doing everything we can to make it hard on them to take us out."
If the Cardinals run the ball as well as they're anticipating, there should be plenty of carries to go around. And that's a look Cardinals fans haven't seen for some time.