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A Catch Out Of The Backfield

Posted Nov 4, 2009

Hightower leading NFL runners in receptions

Running back Tim Hightower heads upfield with one of his eight catches Sunday.
 
 
Larry Centers was a fullback, but spent the majority of his NFL career catching passes out of the backfield instead of running – 827 total receptions, the most by a running back in NFL history.

He finished his nine years as a Cardinal with 535 catches, the franchise record until Anquan Boldin eclipsed it last weekend.

So when Centers hears that current Cardinal running back Tim Hightower leads all NFL running backs with 39 catches, he doesn’t see how that is a bad thing.

“You can control the ball, it’s a high-percentage pass, and as long as it keeps the offense going, I don’t think anyone should complain,” Centers said.

Hightower’s productivity as receiver has drawn mixed reaction all season, perhaps no more so than now. The Cardinals are trying to find ways to get big chunks of yards in the passing game, and having Hightower catch a lot of passes would seem to run contradictory to that.

Even coach Ken Whisenhunt said, when asked whether he wants to see Hightower with so many receptions, “not particularly.” But Whisenhunt was also quick to point out it can work for a team, for example Hightower’s 17-yard catch-and-run that ignited the Cards’ opening touchdown drive against the Panthers.

“It all goes back to moving the chains,” Whisenhunt said. “(His catches are) a sign of the check down (pass) and taking things away down the field, but as long as you are getting positive yards with it, you’re OK.”

Hightower isn’t the only running back who has made a couple of key catches. LaRod Stephens-Howling scored on a 14-yard reception Sunday when the Panthers tried to cover him with a linebacker out of the backfield. And Jason Wright has twice scored touchdowns on receptions inside the 10-yard line.

Quarterback Kurt Warner said Hightower’s receiving ability has been “instrumental” when protection has broken down and the Cardinals need to get some kind of gain and stay in a positive offensive situation heading into the next down.

“There have been a lot of instances where he has been kind of a failsafe when other things haven’t been there and you just pop it to him,” Warner said. “We’re just trying to continually evolve and use all our playmakers.”

Hightower, whose season started with 12 catches for 121 yards against San Francisco, has already surpassed his rookie total of 34 receptions. He’d like to have fewer catches himself. He knows the more catches he makes, the fewer receptions for Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and the rest of the wideouts.

Hightower also said plainly, “I’m a running back.”

“I like breaking those tackles and making those cuts, the running back stuff,” Hightower added. “You appreciate getting the ball, but at the end of the day, I’m a running back at heart.”

Centers was always in a slightly different position in his career. He had more rushing attempts than receptions only four times in his 14-year career. In 1995 with the Cards, Centers had 101 receptions, the team record until Boldin and Fitzgerald showed up.

Centers, a high school receiver, saw the benefit of getting the ball in space and not having to negotiate as many bodies heading upfield.

But more than that, Centers said an NFL running back should be worried about one thing: Being productive.

“Whenever you get caught up in being a statistician as a player you set yourself up for disappointment,” Centers said. “You don’t worry about whether you are getting the yards running the ball or getting them catching the ball.”

On that point, Hightower agreed. If being a receiver is what is important to the Cardinals, it’s what is important to him.

“I like getting the ball, and a running back likes to run the ball,” Hightower said. “But this is the nature of the business and you have to do whatever works for your team. At the end of the day I want to be productive and I want to win.”
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