Punter Ben Graham (left) congratulates teammate Jason Wright after Wright helped down a punt at the 1-yard line against Seattle last weekend.
The search for Ken Whisenhunt has been constant since he first arrived in Arizona.
Scott Player. Mike Barr. Mitch Berger. Dirk Johnson.
The Cardinals' coach couldn't find a punter that was consistent enough or effective enough with which to feel comfortable. When the Cards let Johnson go last season, Ben Graham was merely the guy who looked best in a tryout against Tom Rouen and Durant Brooks. The Jets had cut him earlier in 2008; there was no guarantee he could do what the others had not.
Midway through the 2009 season, however, Graham has become exactly what Whisenhunt had sought.
"To me, it's a game of field position," Whisenhunt said. "That's the advantage of having a punter like Ben gives you. If you can win the battle of field position in most games, you have a chance to win.
"It's nice because for the first time in three years, we feel like we have a guy who can really do that, who is a weapon for us."
Graham, a long-time professional Australian Rules Football player in his home country before coming to play in the NFL, isn't into lauding himself. The statistics, however, do it for him.
His punting average of 48.2 yards per kick leads the NFC and is second in the NFL to Oakland's Shane Lechler (51.5). But Graham is one of the few punters to wed a big average with great touch; his 23 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line is best in the NFC and third behind Cleveland's Dave Zastudil (27) and Kansas City's Dustin Colquitt (and both of them have had significantly more punts to up their totals).
Graham's leg-strength was questioned at the end of his tenure in New York but that has not been an issue in Arizona. And his Aussie Rules background – and the end-over-end kicking style in that game – is what makes him so effective pinning teams deep.
"I can pretty much predict where the ball will be," Graham said. "Obviously I still need the gunners to make the play, but we have had some success. To give the defense help with a long field for the opposition, I guess it is a weapon. But I see that as part of my job. I hate touchbacks."
Remarkably, Graham said he feels like he knows exactly where he's going to put the ball when he boots it end-over-end. He acknowledged luck, conditions and the opposing return man can play a role – sometimes in a good way.
Against Seattle, Graham drilled a punt from his own 48-yard line, aiming for about the Seahawks 12. The ball went 51 yards and was downed at the Seattle 1.
"It wasn't meant to go there -- we got lucky," Graham said. "Had it gone out of bounds at the 12 like I was aiming for, I'm not disappointed with that either."
Quarterback Kurt Warner said there have been times this season where he has taken a sack rather than force a pass, knowing Graham has been so effective and the defense has been stout.
It's been an impressive rally after how his stint ended abruptly in New York.
"I'm not really into comparing what has happened in the past," Graham said. "I'm more about controlling what's in front of me. I approach every game the same. I feel like I am hitting the ball well. There's never going to be the perfect game, but as long as I contribute to the team with the field-position battle and we win, then that's my job."
DOCKETT FINED FOR ELBOW
Defensive end Darnell Dockett was fined $7,500 for the elbow he applied to the neck of Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck after the play was over. The fine was for unnecessary roughness.
Thus ends the week-long saga, which included Seattle coach Jim Mora getting angry in a press conference on the play and Hasselbeck's brother Tim – Dockett's former teammate for part of the 2007 season – going on a Seattle radio station and calling Dockett a "bad guy."
Dockett insisted he never meant to hurt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck told reporters Thursday he had had worse things done to him during a game.
Running back Beanie Wells was also slapped with a $5,000 fine for hitting Seahawks safety Deon Grant after a play, but Grant was given the same fine for the same infraction.
The Cardinals will be without linebacker Chike Okeafor (back) in St. Louis after he missed practice for a third straight game.
"What it really came down to with Chike was not practicing," Whisenhunt said. "You just can't throw him in there and expect him to play well. I anticipate him being back next week."
The only changes Friday to the injury report were that tackle Mike Gandy (pelvis) was able to practice fully and that guard Deuce Lutui, tending to personal matters, missed practice for a second time. Both are expected to play Sunday. The Cards should have everyone else on the injury report available as well.
For the Rams, the offensive line will be without guard/antagonizer Richie Incognito, who is out with a bad foot.
PRACTICE AS PREDICTOR
Whisenhunt was encouraged by the final practice of the week but admitted taking that information couldn't necessarily foretell what will happen on Sunday.
"I have learned you never know for sure," Whisenhunt said. "I have been around teams that have had great practices, even this team, and we haven't played well. There have been Friday practices that have been awful and you lay in bed awake at night and then you beat the crap out of a team on Sunday."
Whisenhunt called Friday's practice "spirited," and there near the end there was a scuffle between practices-squad guard Trevor Canfield and defensive end Kenny Iwebema. Whisenhunt said that was unusual for a Friday.
But he also said those bad feelings quickly evaporate.
"I used to get into almost-fistfights with (former offensive coordinator) Todd Haley all the time," said Whisenhunt, who worked with Haley not only in Arizona but when both were assistants with the Jets. "He used to throw basketballs at me. But we still found a way to be teammates and work together."
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