The Cardinals have blended the work of Edgerrin James (32) and Tim Hightower (34) at running back this season.
Edgerrin James has no desire to coach. None.
"I'd be a general manager or something," James said with a smile. "I'm an upstairs-type-of-person."
But James doesn't mind giving advice in his current role as Cardinals' running back – and that's one of the reasons his relationship with teammate/heir apparent Tim Hightower has been symbiotic.
On the field, James still receives the bulk of the Cards' work. But Hightower, the team's fifth-round draft pick, has become Arizona's short-yardage and goalline specialist in addition to giving James a rest now and then.
Off the field, James has given Hightower lessons on the NFL, becoming more than a teammate but not quite a coach.
"He is a mentor because he has taken me under his wing and he has taught me a lot," Hightower said. "I am blessed to be able to play with him."
James sees it as natural, the desire to help Hightower improve and to pass along the knowledge he's gained in 10 NFL seasons.
"I try to help him as much as I can, eliminate as much trial and error as possible," James said. "I like Tim as a person. As a player, I want him to be good. When I am through playing, to see someone go out and do the things I have done, I want to help him. I have had a nice career and I have seen some of everything and my experience out here (in Arizona) has been … interesting."
Through five games, James has 92 carries for 334 yards and three touchdowns, along with 10 receptions for another 73 yards. Hightower has 36 carries for 110 yards and five touchdowns, and has added 10 catches himself (for 92 yards).
Using two backs -- at least – has worked for many successful teams. The Cowboys, who visit Arizona this weekend, use bruiser Marion Barber and speedy Felix Jones. The Giants have Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. The Panthers have DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart. The Titans use LenDale White and Chris Johnson.
Contrasting styles like Barber and Jones in Dallas can help a team. But Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said as long as he has two good backs he is happy because "naturally there will be some contrast, because everyone's skill set is a little bit different."
Whisenhunt would have preferred to use a two-back tandem more often last season, when Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington didn't quite fill the need behind James. "Edge" carried the ball 324 times a season ago, with Arrington's 26 carries the second-most on the team.
That Hightower has already eclipsed that mark underscores his importance.
"If you have a couple guys who are a little different it gives you an advantage because you can't prepare for one guy," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "I really like it."
Haley added that the Cards' use of Arrington for the first time last week actually gives him three legitimate weapons out of the backfield. And while most running backs would prefer to be "The Man" when it comes to their workload, Haley said having options is better for the team.
"You always have to worry about guys' egos and feelings," Haley said.
"We need guys who are thinking team first. It obviously has been proven with the Patriots and the Giants the past couple of years, team-first wins."
There is an adjustment, however. James, who turned 30 during training camp and whose contract runs out after the 2009 season, doesn't quite have the burst the younger Hightower does. That was on display against the Bills, when Hightower took a third-and-1 carry 17 yards for a touchdown.
It makes sense for Hightower to get steady work. Despite the seemingly clear delineation of roles between James and Hightower, however, James said he is still getting used to the rotation.
"You go to training camp, you do things one way, and you come into the season doing things another way, we really haven't settled into how we are doing it," James said.
Hightower wants to eventually be the main back, a thought he freely admits. But he also said his give-and-take with James during these formative years can only help him.
"You understand your role and you can either embrace it or you can fight against it," Hightower said. "The more you embrace it, the more you understand it and the better you'll do.
"I came into a good situation where I can work with Edgerrin and it is beneficial. It is different at first. But you do what you have to do to help the team win and I can't complain at all because it's been getting good results."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 10/9/08.