Tim Hightower busts through the line for some of his 109 yards rushing during Sunday's 34-13 victory over the Rams.
ST. LOUIS – Tim Hightower jogged off the field after his 30-yard touchdown run Sunday, getting the requisite high-fives from teammates, when he came up to Edgerrin James.
James, at once Hightower's mentor and the man banished to the bench in favor of the rookie, greeted his friend with his own congratulations.
The swap many had been waiting for finally happened at the Edward Jones Dome,
leading to the Cardinals' 34-13 blowout of the Rams. Hightower, the fifth-round pick from Richmond, was the Cards' starting running back.
James -- 13th all-time in the NFL in rushing and coming off the most productive season a Cardinals' running back has had since the franchise moved to Arizona -- suddenly was a footnote, joining quarterback Matt Leinart and center Pat Ross as the only active players not to see the field.
It is awkward, and it is not. It was all but expected, yet still somewhat shocking in its execution.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt insisted there had been no plan to keep Edge on the sidelines or to give Hightower so many carries. The results could not be argued; Hightower gained 109 yards on 22 attempts. "New" backup J.J. Arrington came up with 62 yards on six carries.
And, of course, the Cardinals won.
"I want to play, but it's not my style (of game), I don't fit the mold," a matter-of-fact James said afterward, adding that the decision to not play him "is nothing about me and Tim personally."
"It is bigger than that, other than that," James said. "It's not so much I can't play, it's more personal."
That message was important to a clearly disappointed Edge.
"Anything Tim needs to know, I am always going to help Tim," James said, adding, "I am going to support Tim all the way, because that's how I am."
Hightower acknowledged his success was bittersweet. His relationship with James has been important since he was drafted. Last week, when it became clear a swap was possible, James stressed to Hightower that whatever happened, the rookie needed to play hard.
The increased attention on the running back situation was difficult on Hightower, who danced around the subject constantly during the week because he wanted to avoid coming across as disrespectful.
"I look up to (Edge) a lot, I respect him a lot, and from day one he has embraced me," Hightower said. "He has taught me a lot of things.
"I feel he is right there with me and I think he was a major reason for my success today."
Hightower's talent didn't hurt in that regard, either. His touchdown run was the microcosm of why Hightower beat out James, a juke and burst – after a failure to properly block the cornerback on the play, according to Whisenhunt – straight up the field.
Hightower isn't known for huge speed, but he is faster to the second level than James. Even Whisenhunt noted the Cards have been lacking long runs. Since James arrived in 2006, his longest run – in 769 attempts – has been 27 yards.
Hightower was hit for too many negative plays – he was at 100 yards and subsequently lost six and two yards on his next two carries to leave that milestone in doubt – but offensive coordinator Todd Haley clearly has a new weapon.
"I don't know if we can have that kind of production every week but at least, if we are complete -- I'm not even going to say balanced, I am going to say complete – and run the ball and throw the ball, you can have games like that," Haley said. "You can't have games like that when you are just throwing or just running."
The throwing is never an issue. Kurt Warner twirled his way to another 342 yards and two touchdowns, the Cards gained 510 yards, and Haley must have felt like all his whiteboard scribblings had come ideally to life.
"Todd Haley did a great job today calling the packages and the plays, and Kurt, as he has done, checked out of a couple of things," Whisenhunt said.
Hightower still has a learning curve, and Whisenhunt cautioned such. It was hard not to sense the satisfaction from the coach, however.
Success from Hightower works on many levels for the Cardinals. On the field, his raw ability – especially with the ability for bigger plays – simply outweighs what Edge can do. In the future, Hightower's emergence means less money spent on the running back position, because it seems impossible James and his $5 million salary will be around in 2009.
In the meantime, Hightower will learn what he can from James.
And the Cards will try and take their newly remodeled offense into the postseason. * * * Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 11/2/08.
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