Can the Cardinals finally become a dominant, run-first team?
Almost since his the first day in Arizona, Ken Whisenhunt has had one goal; to establish the run in the desert.
Since he joined the Cardinals in 2007, installing a Pittsburgh style rushing offense has thus far failed, though not for lack of trying.
The resurgence and success of Kurt Warner, and dominance of Larry Fitzgerald have both certainly caused the running game to be deemphasised at times, as have injuries and stalled development amongst rushers, and the Cardinals perennially sub-par offensive line has always made running effectively much more difficult. But whatever the reasons, the Cardinals attempts to transition into a run-first team have largely failed.
However, 2011 appeared to be the year the Cardinals running offense would finally break out.
Beanie Wells, who had previously struggled to establish himself as an every down threat due to injury finally looked fully game fit, and second round draft pick Ryan Williams had looked dominant during training camp. And with LaRod Stephens-Howling as a more than capable speedster for a change of pace and on gadget plays, for the first time during Whisenhunt's tenure, the Cardinals appeared to be a legitimate backfield threat.
Sadly, it wasn't to be. Williams was injured on his first carry during the Cardinals preseason game against the Packers, rupturing his patella tendon, and ending his season before it even had a chance to begin.
Wells managed to play through a lingering knee injury, not allowing it end his season, and though short of an out-and-out breakout season, he nonetheless had a few breakout games.
However, in spite of topping 1000 yards for the first time in his career, without the support of Williams, Wells was still unable to assert himself as a dominant threat on every down, and the Cardinals rushing game once again faltered.
In 2012, with Wells and Williams both returning to full fitness, hopes are once again high for the Cardinals running game.
All being well, Wells and Williams look set to split carries in 2012. Running back committees are the norm in todays NFL, and Wells and Williams look like the perfect tandem.
Beanie Wells is a tough, punishing, power rusher. In 2011 he was able to show flashes of the brilliance he showed at Ohio State. At his best, he hit the hole hard, and was able to power through blocks. Unfortunately, his running style was as punishing on his own body as it is on his opponents, and struggled to maintain consistency over the course of the season. With Williams sharing the load however, and a little more recovery time between plays, Wells could well finally see his breakout season.
Williams, on the other hand is a quick, explosive and elusive runner with top-tier finishing speed. He can be just as punishing as Wells, in his own way, as defenders try to close down the rusher. Once in the secondary, Williams has the ability to bust off huge gains, and take it to the house, something that the Cardinals running game has generally lacked.
Wells punishing power running style, coupled with Williams explosive finishing may see the Cardinals establish themselves as a rushing powerhouse. But there is a but... a big one in fact.
Both Wells and Williams have serious durability questions hanging over them. Williams has not seen completive action following his 2011 preseason injury --tonight will be his first taste, nearly a year to the day later -- and his current form is yet to be seen.
Wells played in all but two of his 2011 games, but underwent knee surgery during the offseason, and his availability remains touch-and-go. Worse, Wells injury appears to be recurring, with the same knee problems limiting him throughout his career.
The Cardinals backups, therefore have to be aware that their time may soon come. Fortunately for the Arizona team, this may not be a deal breaker. William Powell and Alphonso Smith have both looked positive in training camp, and during their preseason games, with LaRod Stephens-Howling still appearing to have the talent to be a dependable player too.
Though none of these men would be expected to lead an NFL franchise at this stage, any one of them have looked more than capable in the should either Wells or Williams need a game or two to rest or recuperate.
Personally, I expect the Cardinals rushing game to be a much more dominant force in 2012 than in recent years, a must if the Cardinals hope to remove some pressure from their struggling passing game.
Of course injury is a concern for the team, however these issues notwithstanding, the Cardinals may finally be on the verge of that long-awaited paradigm shift.
That said all of this relies upon the Cardinals having been able to put together an, at very least, passable offensive line, which we will look at in our next article.