Tim Hightower (left) and Edgerrin James take part in warm-ups before Sunday's victory against the St. Louis Rams.
A day after rookie Tim Hightower ran for 109 yards in his first NFL start and former Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James was relegated to the bench without playing a down, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt emphasized James "is a valuable part of this team."
Left unsaid was what that means on a tangible level.
Not surprisingly, most of the questions to start off Whisenhunt's Monday press conference were about the status of the veteran James after his benching in a 34-13 win in St. Louis.
Whisenhunt said James will get chances to carry the ball and "we are going to need Edge."
It was clear, however, that James' most important role at this point will be insurance in case of any injury to Hightower. James does not play special teams, so when he doesn't play running back – as in Sunday's game – he takes up a valuable roster spot.
But even with J.J. Arrington making plays as a runner himself (62 yards on six carries against the Rams), the Cards will need James should Hightower go down. For that reason, Whisenhunt said he doesn't see a reason James would be made inactive on game days.
Bigger picture, Whisenhunt said it's up to the player to handle such a demotion and not let it affect the team. He pointed to the way veteran Jerome Bettis dealt with his lesser role in Pittsburgh while Whisenhunt coached there, at the point where Willie Parker became the featured back.
"A lot of that is the responsibility of the player and how he deals with it," Whisenhunt said. "Edge has tremendous credentials, he's been an important part of this team and he still is.
"For us to win … the thing that has to be the most important in our players' minds is the team. I've seen tremendous signs of that. They understand we will need everybody."
Of course, by the time Parker burst on the scene, Bettis was already thinking retirement and dearly wanted a Super Bowl ring first. Bettis had also been losing carries to Duce Staley or Amos Zeroue the previous few seasons.
James wants a ring, but he clearly does not see himself as at the end of his career and has been the workhorse back every year since arriving in the NFL. At the same time, James – who, like all players was off Monday and unavailable – did not sound like he was looking to undermine the team even after watching healthy from the sideline for the first time in his career.
"They can sit me down for the rest of the year," James said after the Rams' game. "I'll (still) come out and go to work."
Whisenhunt repeated a couple of times there are situations for which James would be the best player – the coach was not specific what those would be – and cautioned Hightower had not yet "arrived."
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley pointed out that Hightower had too many negative runs. Hightower had four such runs against the Rams for a total of 14 yards in losses.
But Hightower also had four runs of at least 15 yards (and one wiped out because of a penalty). In his 2½ seasons in Arizona, James had just 14 runs of at least 15 yards (in 769 rushing attempts). Ultimately, that bigger-play ability put Hightower into the lineup – and got James removed.
"I believe guys are given opportunities when they earn it and you're judging it on how they do on the field," Whisenhunt said. "If you hold true to those decisions, by and large you will make the right decisions. That is what has guided me, guided us, since we have been here."
Whisenhunt said practice being backed up a day – because the Cards don't play again until next Monday night – should help in the recovery of left tackle Mike Gandy (right ankle sprain). The news is not nearly as optimistic for rookie linebacker Ali Highsmith, who suffered a serious right knee injury against St. Louis. …
Cornerback Eric Green told Whisenhunt he thought Rams receiver Derek Stanley had stepped out of bounds on Stanley's 80-yard touchdown catch. Whisenhunt, however, said stopping on the play was "not acceptable" and will be something that will be addressed. Green, who has battled minor injuries and unsteady play, could be replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Rodgers-Cromartie did replace Green at times during Sunday's game after Stanley's catch. …
Rodgers-Cromartie told Whisenhunt he tackled Rams receiver Torry Holt out of bounds because he thought Holt was still inbounds. After the Cards' problems with tackling the week before, Rodgers-Cromartie did not want to let Holt get away.
"It was unfortunate we got the penalty and that is something we have to cut down on," Whisenhunt said. "I think the second half, we had the majority of our penalties … and it's good, because it gives us something to crack the whip about this week."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 11/3/08.