Cardinals running back Andre Ellington signals for a first down against the Cowboys on Monday.
It was a musical affair during “Monday Night Football,” as Jordin Sparks sang the national anthem, followed by a Young MC and Montell Jordan performance at halftime.
But every time Andre Ellington touched the ball, Gotye must have sprung into people’s heads, because here was somebody that they used to know.
Ellington’s career has been nothing but a background tune since 2014, as injuries and ineffectiveness stilted his push to become the team’s anchor at running back. Three seasons later, he is back in the spotlight, as the Cardinals desperately search for a viable fill-in for the injured David Johnson.
Ellington had five catches for 59 yards and carried the ball five times for 22 yards in the 28-17 loss to the Cowboys. Beyond the statistics, it was the way Ellington looked, as he zipped around the field with explosion for an offense that badly needs game-changers.
“Going into the game, I was pretty conditioned and my body felt good,” Ellington said. “That’s usually the story, man. If my body’s feeling good, I’m able to do a lot of the stuff I did.”
Since Johnson went down in the season opener, Kerwynn Williams and Chris Johnson have each gotten a start at running back, but have been ineffective as the top option. Coach Bruce Arians said Johnson looked “a little rusty” against the Cowboys – he finished with 12 carries for 17 yards -- but will stick with him as the starter this week against the 49ers.
Ellington had the most snaps among the running backs against Dallas anyway, and Arians said his role will expand moving forward. Despite suffering through multiple seasons in which his playing time dwindled, Ellington never questioned his physical ability. It was all about the injuries.
“Once I’m healthy, I can go out there and do pretty much anything,” Ellington said.
Whether it’s Ellington, Johnson or Williams in the backfield, the Cardinals’ running game must improve. It enters Week 4 against San Francisco averaging 2.8 yards per carry, 31st in the NFL. Of particular importance is churning out tough yards in the red zone. The Cardinals are 29th in the NFL in touchdown rate inside the 20 at 27.3 percent, a place where the ground game becomes paramount. David Johnson’s absence is pronounced.
“He was obviously a monster down there in the red zone because he caught a bunch of touchdowns, and he ran in a bunch of touchdowns,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He’s one of those guys. He’s irreplaceable.”
While he doesn’t have the short-yardage abilities of Johnson, Ellington could still be a nice weapon in the red zone. The Cardinals’ vertical passing game is no longer possible in close quarters, and Ellington’s elusiveness in tight spaces is useful.
Back in March, it seemed unlikely he would even be an option this season. Ellington hit free agency for the first time, and with David Johnson’s emergence, most believed he would seek a better opportunity elsewhere. Ellington kept an open mind and eventually returned on a one-year deal.
“My heart is here,” Ellington said. “We started something here back in 2013. We fell short two years ago, but we all believe in one another and we believe in what we have around here. We’re trying to get a championship.”
Ellington is a big fan of Arians, and the Cardinals’ coach thought the starter-turned-backup would return.
“He enjoys it,” Arians said. “He knows his role here, and he hasn’t been healthy in a couple years, and I kind of figured he’d come back.”
That comeback is complete, but the more important one is just getting started. If Ellington can channel the playmaker that burst onto the scene as a rookie, the offense will add a critical piece.
“It brings back that element that David left us without,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “That’s why Andre’s on the team, because he has that explosiveness. … He looks like old Andre.”
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders at the 2017 home opener against the Cowboys