Images of Cardinals running backs during the 2014 season
Bruce Arians has made it clear since the day he showed up: Don't bother him with statistics, particularly in the run game. Running for a lot of yards is nice, but the Cardinals coach is about context, and sometimes, total yards and yards per carry don't always say what really happened in a game.
That said, the Cards are trying to make a move toward a better run game. That was obvious when the team doled out big money to guard Mike Iupati, and in the moves General Manager Steve Keim has made to beef up the offensive line in general over the last three offseasons.
"I felt like we needed to change the mindset a little bit, where in second-and-short and third-and-short you
can come off the ball and create movement in the run game," Keim said. "Set the tone offensively, where you are not a pass-first offense and you can be balanced."
That doesn't necessarily mean running for 140 yards a game, but the Cardinals would definitely like to improve a running game that fell to 31st in the league in 2014 after losing running back Andre Ellington to injury and fellow back Jonathan Dwyer to off-the-field troubles.
In the last 20 seasons, the Cardinals have ranked better than 21st in the NFL in rushing just once – the Marcel Shipp-led running game in 2002 was 15th in the league. Even context is needed there, since the 5-11 Cardinals were shredded by injury at wide receiver that season and the passing game was not great.
On the flip side, the Cardinals have been last in the NFL four times in that span, but one of those times was
2008, when Kurt Warner and a trio of 1,000-yard receivers got the Cards to a Super Bowl. (Not to mention some solid postseason running from Edgerrin James, who helped the Cards average 111 yards on the ground in their three playoff wins that year.)
Arians will always enjoy being able to pass the ball, but he knows the value of being able to keep it on the ground successfully.
"I think whoever's playing quarterback plays better with a good running game," Arians said.
Now, Arians said, his challenge to his offensive line is to all but announce to the other team that the ball will be run left, behind Iupati at guard and Jared Veldheer at tackle. That's where the money has been spent, and that's where the yards must be gained.
"There were some areas last year that we fell short in: Running the ball in the red zone -- not so much goalline but short-yardage situations," Arians said. "With these additions we felt like we got more powerful and more athletic."
The ability to know you'll gain two yards on third-and-2 also can give Arians more confidence to launch a play-action bomb on second-and-2 if he so chose.
Who will do the running means as much as how much running. The Cardinals figure to add a running back in the draft, in theory someone who does well between the tackles who can serve as a complement to Ellington. Ellington's second year, hampered by a foot problem, then a hip and then a core issue, was nowhere near as productive as his rookie season. Once he was lost, it changed the kind of running the Cardinals did because Arians based the calls on his back. More stability in that regard will also help.
"When you run the ball it's not just how can they block, it's what does the runner like to run?" Arians said. "What does he sees the best? Is it a zone scheme? Is it inside zone? Is it outside zone? Does he like pullers? Does he like a lead blocker? As we were finding all these things out about our backs -- because we were bringing them in off the street, too -- you evolve as a running game and it hurts your running game, there's no doubt.
"I like the ability that we have right now going into OTAs to explore some more options in the running game."