Cardinals fans found small cheer in their team’s extremely fortunate 24-23 victory two days ago over the Oakland Raiders. Some were so angered and delirious as to say it was “a loss” after Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed what should have been a gimme 32-yard field goal attempt as time ran out. This crticism despite the reality of a 2-1 record and a 1-0 division mark.
But in all the ugliness that preceded the shanked kick lay a golden nugget. Call it a strong hint of where Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt envisions the team’s future. It was the running game and the re-emergence of Beanie Wells, who missed the first two games due to surgery on his right knee.
For the masses who wrongly thought over 25 possessions that an 80-yard touchdown run in Atlanta and one strong series in the season opener at St. Louis constituted a “decent” running game, their eyes perhaps were opened in the Raiders game. With Wells back in high gear, running hard, hurdling defenders and playing like his life depended on every carry, the Cardinals put together their most dedicated and impressive run attack in Whisenhunt’s four seasons as coach.
The transition from Kurt Warner, a prolific passer, to a more conservative running game with Wells is fraught with promise and dangers.
On Sunday, the once-pass happy Cardinals ran the ball as much as they passed, 26 and 26. Excluding, of course, the two sacks of beleaguered quarterback Derek Anderson. This is heresy to those who want a continuance of Warner-era statistics when the team threw 70 percent of the time, and even more on occasion.
Once Wells entered the Raiders game the stale air in University of Phoenix Stadium began to vanish. On his first carry, Wells dashed around left end for 24 yards. “Go, Beanie, go,” many fans chanted. As the afternoon all but ended with a pall and the certainty Janikowski would nail his chip shot, Wells’s stats were almost lost. Fourteen carries, 75 yards and a 5.4 yard average. At his rate, Wells can yet attain his first 1,000 yard season since arriving homesick in the desert in 2009.
For a No. 1 draft choice, Wells has been quite the under-achiever, much unlike his college career at Ohio State. Having now appeared in 17 NFL games, he is yet to start a single one. Strange, considering the Cardinals lavished a nice contract on him and the usual fast-track path of gifted rookie running backs ala Adrian Peterson. For undisclosed reasons, Whisenhunt has stuck with hard-working Tim Hightower, who can be a fierce runner but prone to fumble, a step or two slow, indecisive at times and impatient. Now, more than ever, the moment seems to belong to Beanie.
If true that Beanie is about to break out at last, it couldn’t come at a better time.
The offense has stuttered to put it mildly. The blame has been heaped almost totally on the strong-armed Anderson’s shoulder pads. This, though, it is obvious he seldom gets pass protection from the line, is throwing to a depleted corps of receivers and until last week had no running game to take away blitzes. But it is also true he must improve his accuracy and cut back on the bad decisions he made against the Raiders.
Many fans and some of the media have started clamoring for Whisenhunt to make a change at quarterback, possibly to Max Hall, an undrafted free agent from BYU. Hall, scouts say, carries a lot of heavy baggage. He has, they say, a relatively weak arm and “and can’t make all the throws.” He is small, at 6-1, and has a propensity to get nervous in the pocket and ends up using too soon his considerable scrambling talents. Such a jarring change might not be necessary if Wells continues to run with authority. Anderson is not the kind of quarterback that can carry a team as Warner did.
But with Beanie, nothing is certain. Some have begun to question his durability. He sprained an ankle in preseason a year ago and was slow getting off the mark. In this year’s final preseason game, he suffered a torn meniscus to his right leg and had arthroscopic surgery that went unreported until a few days before the Raiders came to town.
Also, it is wondered, how long the family that owns the team, the Bidwills, will withstand the criticism that goes with a transition season, missing a highly successful quarterback in Warner, who retired last winter. If they bring pressure on Whisenhunt down through the front office, the coach’s dream of building a Pittsburgh Steelers West could be crippled. That dream would include a strong running game and outstanding defense. So far only the running game with Wells has shown much promise. But the offensive line is big and built for run blocking, and Whisenhunt has in the 6-6 Anderson a tough presence at quarterback ala Big Ben Roethlisberger. And of course there is Wells.
If left alone with his redesign of the Cardinals, Whisenhunt may lose or even jettison his All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald who needs the precision passes that Anderson seems unable to throw. Fitzgerald’s disgust with Anderson’s passes is annoying. In two games so far, he has tried to show up Anderson by lingering on the ground after a dive for the ball, his face expressing the thought, “See, world, what I have to put up with? That’s why my numbers are down.” Such childishness would not come from the departed Anquan Boldin, now doing great things again, only in Baltimore.
A tougher Cardinals team seems miles away yet a reasonable goal. With Warner, a true freak of nature, the vagaries of winning rested solely on him. Under the more stable “Pittsburgh Plan,” the team would depend not so much on one player and thus be less susceptible to such vast changes as the Cardinals are undergoing in 2010.
With a healthy Wells, the first step could be cemented in place.