Running back Beanie Wells is still looking to "get in the groove" after knee surgery.
Beanie Wells smiled, but then, he almost always smiles.
"They haven't seen me at 100 percent yet," the Cardinals' running back said.
"They" is everyone. Coaches. Teammates. Fans. There was a hope – perhaps even an expectation, at least by the fan base – that Beanie Ball would sweep over the team in 2010. Kurt Warner had retired and Wells had flashed enough at the end of the 2009 season that his progression would be natural and a big season inevitable.
It just hasn't worked out that way.
Derailed by a right knee injury in the final preseason game, Wells underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, missed the first two games, and was brought back into the lineup. He did OK, getting his first 20-carry game in the NFL and later started for the first time. But then was felled for basically two games again thanks to an adverse reaction to a lubricant injection in the same knee.
Barring something unforeseen, Beanie will play Sunday in Kansas City. Coach Ken Whisenhunt didn't say Wells still would be the starter, as he did in his last full performance Oct. 31 against Tampa Bay, but regardless of whether Wells is starting or not, "he'll get a lot of plays," Whisenhunt said.
What he does with those plays, everyone will wait to see.
"I'm missing those (practice and game) reps, being out there consistently in the groove," Wells said. "When I say 'in the groove,' there is more to it than a running back being in one game and getting 20 carries. If you look over the course of a year with running backs, they are getting into a groove not just one game but several games, getting a feel for how the season goes, how the line is playing.
"A lot of people are thinking in a groove (is) one game with a bunch of carries, but that isn't it."
That hasn't happened for Wells for a long time. Last season, he was able to get that groove. In eight of nine games prior to the meaningless regular-season finale, Beanie was given at least 13 carries. In that stretch, he had 536 yards on 113 carries, or 4.7 yards a rush.
That's what created the excitement.
When Wells returned from his knee injury this season, he gained 75 yards on just 14 carries against Oakland, and hopes were renewed. Since then, however, he has just 156 yards on 56 carries before the recent swelling on his knee basically knocked him out.
Whisenhunt made the decision to sit Wells against Seattle last week in large part to hopefully get Beanie healthy. Wells said the way he feel now is the best he has felt since before the surgery.
"We all thought coming into this season it was going to be a big year," Whisenhunt said. "Obviously, there have been a number of reasons, not necessarily just Beanie, that we haven't had as big as we would have liked. I don't think that we've seen all that we're going to see out of Beanie yet and that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Veteran running back Jason Wright said he thinks Wells – with help from the coaches and organization -- has been somewhat insulated from any outside expectations/criticisms that are out there. "He's in a little bit of a bubble," Wright said, "and that's the best thing for his development."
The idea Wells could have stepped right in and starred is misleading, Wright said. While some teams have specifically taken running backs who can plug in and play – specifically, Wright pointed out Mike Shanahan's Broncos a few years back – the ability for a player to automatically fit perfectly into a system is rare.
Wright said there is also an adjustment for Wells as he shares touches with Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling.
"When your carries are limited you almost feel like you have to make something happen with every carry you get," Wright said. "There is an added personal pressure, 'Well, if I'm only going to get six touches, they have to be the best six touches ever.' "
"I can tell you as a career backup, if you have two touches and two bad reads, you think the world is ending, disaster, 'I'm getting fired tomorrow and I'm never playing in the NFL again.' That's the adjustment they have to go through. I think Beanie is navigating it well."
Wells, the team's No. 1 pick in 2009, is a bigger target than Hightower, especially as people wait for more from the run game. Wells has heard the comments that he isn't doing enough, that he is injury-prone.
To these he just shakes his head – smiling, of course – saying everyone has a right to their opinion but that injuries happen and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the knee injury.
"I want to play hard," Wells said, "and be productive for this football team."
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