Running back Alfonso Smith breaks off a run inside Saturday night against the Chargers.
Alfonso Smith knows how this goes.
He's seen his career bear the brunt of the NFL's "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" mindset. Smith has been signed and released by the Cardinals seven times since entering the league in 2010. But after last season, in which he didn't record a single carry, he took an inventory of his football career and his personal life, and came to a conclusion: He's letting the chips fall where they may.
And they've been falling in his favor this preseason.
Smith ran for 44 yards on five carries Saturday night against the San Diego Chargers, continuing to build an impressive resume through training camp and three preseason games. With the results of an MRI on Rashard Mendenhall's surgically repaired right knee still pending – Coach Bruce Arians said Mendenhall felt "looseness" in the knee so he came out of the game -- Smith is showing the Cardinals what he did lately.
"I've put some good stuff out there," he said. "I've been putting in work. There's no surprise in me. I've been here the whole
offseason. I've been lifting. (Running backs) coach Stump (Mitchell) has been coaching me up great telling me to be patient and patient, and it's finally paying off.
"I'm being patient and now I have to take it to the next step."
The more steps Smith takes, the more options he gives the Cardinals.
With Ryan Williams slowly returning to form after missing almost three weeks with an aggravated "fatty pad" in his right knee and Andre Ellington having missed time because of a neck injury, Smith has become a reliable surrogate behind quarterback Carson Palmer.
The more choices Arians has, the better for the Cards' offense, which relied on the run game Saturday more than it has in their previous two preseason games.
"I thought our running game was outstanding," Arians said. "That was our point of emphasis coming into the game, running the ball into the red zone, which we did until we got stupid penalties."
Health may trump production as the depth chart is set for the Cardinals' regular season opener Sept. 8 at St. Louis. Mendenhall and the starters will see limited snaps Thursday in the preseason finale at Denver, and whether that includes Smith could help sort out the running back conundrum.
Williams is the centerpiece of that puzzle. He returned to practice Thursday. He had two carries for 10 yards and absorbed the type of contact he'll see on Sundays. If he can return to game speed, Williams could set up a log jam at the second back. That could be a slow process.
"I got enough (plays) for the time I missed out," he said. "I can't be mad at that. I played (well) for missing about two-and-a-half weeks."
Arians said the plan was to limit Williams' carries against San Diego, although Williams will see more action in Denver alongside rookies Stepfan Taylor and Ellington.
With first cuts coming soon and final cuts by Saturday, the running backs will sort themselves out next week. But Arians has more important things to worry about, like replacing his left guard and crossing his fingers on the starting running back.
For at least a few days, the Cardinals' running game was the least of his worries.
"We looked really good," Williams said. "First half, there were holes for days for every running back that ran. We had a really good, solid running game today."