The prolific, high flying offense of the Arizona Cardinals consisted mostly of Kurt Warner throwing lasers all over the field, and the ground game staggering out a couple of yards at a time. By season's end, the Cardinals had the #2 rated passing offense and the #32 rated rushing attack. In the playoffs, the running game had some success but their production was a bit of a mirage, because they were actually less efficient. During the regular season they ran the ball 21.2 times per game for an average of 3.5 yards per carry, but in the playoffs they rededicated themselves to the running game and ran the ball 28 times per game, for an average of 3.3 yards per game. So even though they averaged nearly 20 rushing yards per game more during the post season, they weren't exactly successful when trying to move the ball on the ground. So the next question, as we look towards the draft, is how do they fix or at least improve the running game?
As with many great debates, fixing a running game is a bit of a "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" discussion. What I mean by that is, which position group is more responsible for a productive running game, the offensive line or the running backs? If you've been a Cardinals' fan for any length of time, your very familiar with this argument because it's directly related to the 2007 draft, when the Cardinals entered draft day with needs at offensive tackle and running back. When their fifth overall pick came on the clock, they had to make a decision that's divided fans ever since: Levi Brown or Adrian Peterson. The rest as they say is history. Adrian Peterson, in two seasons, has been voted to two Pro Bowls, two All-Pro teams and holds NFL records for most rushing yards in the first eight games of a career, most 200 yard rushing games as rookie and most rushing yards in a single game. Levi Brown on the other hand has started 27 games for the Cardinals at right tackle but hasn't been anywhere near Pro Bowl level or dominating.
One would argue that Peterson's accomplishments with the Vikings are a result of his arguably league-best offensive line, as well as his out-of-this-world physical ability. The Cardinals could face the same dilemna this April. When they step up to the podium there will most likely be at least one franchise back on the board (whether it's Moreno, Wells, McCoy or Brown), and a physically imposing center capable of improving the offense line from the inside out (Mack). So I ask you who came first, the chicken or egg, offensive line or running back?
It's time to find a back that can make everyone fly high: In the past two seasons since Ken Whisenhunt took over as the Cardinals head coach, the franchise has drafted Levi Brown with a top five pick, and signed free agents Mike Gandy and Al Johnson. They also picked up undrafted free agent Lyle Sendlein meaning that three out of the five offensive line starters are 'Whiz guys.' Adding to that is the youth of the offensive line with three starters 25 or younger, and they've got some up and coming younger guys on the depth chart. Overall the offensive line is headed in the right direction and it has the youth to get better with time. The running back position on the other hand, has only been addressed by the fifth round pick Tim Hightower, who had a promising rookie season but still has question marks about his ability to be franchise back. Outside of Hightower is a veteran with one foot out the door and a unheralded free agent signing in Jason Wright. It's time to pick up a back with the ability and potential to be a front-line starter for the next decade.
Build the garage before you buy the sports car: Even the greatest back in the world can look mediocre behind a pourous offensive line. The offensive line is headed in the right direction, but they still need better quality players. Tim Hightower showed promise last year and he was a fifth round pick who will improve in his second season. There are backs every single season who come out of the middle rounds that have productive careers. Keep building a front wall that will open holes and keep Warner upright and the Cardinals offense will continue to flourish.
The Cardinals could face a similar decision in a month when they take the podium as they did two seasons ago, running back or offensive lineman. Which choice would you make?