BY: ED COLE
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians says running back Andre Ellington’s touches shouldn’t decrease this season, but he needs to watch his back.
“We’ll see how it goes. A guy could take his spot,” Arians said.
It just might be time to shake things up in Arizona’s backfield. This was a running “attack” that was ranked 31st in the NFL last year. They averaged less than 82 yards rushing a game.
To an extent, you can’t put the blame squarely on Ellington’s shoulders. He injured his foot early in offseason workouts and he wasn’t able to shake it at all. Combine that with the sports hernia surgery he had toward the end of the season, which landed him on injured reserve, and you had a less than ideal season for Ellington.
Despite everything that went wrong with Ellington’s body, he still led Arizona in rushing yards with 660 on 201 carries. In fact, those 660 rushing yards ranked Ellington 15th amongst NFC rushers last season. Not bad for a guy who could hardly practice mid-week during the season.
“It was a freaky, freaky injury, and he [Ellington] still had his touches,” Arians said. “What really set him back is he couldn’t evolve as a pass receiver, because he couldn’t get the reps, so in the games, he’d make a questionable decision when he had a two-way go when the quarterback’s back there holding it [the ball], hitting him on the back hip.”
What really cut down Ellington and Arizona’s running game was the lack of a big back to open holes for Ellington and get the down and dirty yards they needed in crunch time. Jonathan Dwyer was supposed to be the man for the job, but his domestic violence incident got him taken off the roster and out of their day-to-day game plan.
“We obviously missed Jonathan [Dywer]. That was a big hit to us, because Jonathan’s not just a big back, he’s a fast back. His running, we’d bounce it outside, run about 50 yards is typical John,” Arians said. “So yeah, we’re looking to hopefully find not just a big back, but a big, fast back.”
Arians fell on the sword and blamed himself for not preparing running back Robert Hughes more for action. At 5-11, 235 pounds, Hughes – with preparation – could’ve been the stopgap Arizona needed to replace Dwyer.
“Every time he [Hughes] touched the ball last year he made big plays, and most of it was as a receiver,” Arians said. “I’ve seen Robert run the ball, so he could fit that role.”
There’s a bright side to attrition: It allows you to bring in others, like a Kerwynn Williams or a Marion Grice, see what they can do and see if they’re able to contribute and keep the offense churning, which they were both able to do in a short amount of time.
“As we were finding all these things out about our backs, because we were bringing them in off the street too, you evolved as a running game. There’s no doubt it hurts your running game,” Arians said. “With Kerwynn [Williams], we found a nice little rhythm as an inside zone team, and Marion [Grice] could fit that role too, and Marion came around as a good little goal line runner. He found a way to get it in there.”
“I like the ability that we have right now going into OTAs to explore some more options in the running game,” Arians said.
Whether Arizona explores their options further through the Draft or through free agency, it’s of extreme importance that they get a bruiser. Arians says the current crop of running backs coming out in the 2015 NFL Draft is the best he’s seen in a decade. With the 24th pick in the first round, it’s possible the Cardinals could land a back like Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, providing he’s not already taken. Gordon was at the Cardinals’ Tempe facility not too long ago meeting with the brass, so there’s clearly some interest on their part in Gordon.
“I think we’ll have a chance to get one that we really like,” Arians said.
Having a strong running game not only benefits the offense as a whole, but if you shrink the microscope down, it’s of direct benefit to the quarterback, because he knows he’s got options and another avenue if the passing game isn’t clicking.
“When you go through four of them [quarterbacks], it’s very difficult to have continuity in a passing game. When you lose your running back, it’s a little bit harder to have continuity in the running game,” Arians said. “I think losing Andre [Ellington] and Jonathan [Dwyer] were more devastating at times than losing our quarterbacks.”