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Cards' concerns on offense go deeper than quarterback

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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With the NFL lockout affording ample time, the Cardinals' quarterback search has become a disturbingly detailed Arizona obsession. As fans and journalists dissect each of Kevin Kolb's 319 career attempts, the significance of Kyle Orton's fourth-quarter passer rating, Carson Palmer's remaining resolve, Matt Hasselbeck's remaining cartilage, and Marc Bulger's inner fire, it's easy to overlook Arizona's other offensive woes.

"Any time you go 5-11 and have the 31st-rated offense, it's obvious you didn't perform well enough as a group," Cards offensive coordinator Mike Miller said. "The quarterbacks certainly had a hand in that performance last season, but that doesn't take the blame off the other positions."

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Arizona's quarterbacks were sacked 50 times in 2010 -- tied for the NFL's second-highest total -- while the running game gained a league-low 86.8 yards per game.

With Derek Anderson's inaccuracy, Max Hall's inadequacies and John Skelton's inexperience, opposing defenses knew there was little threat of an Arizona passing attack. That made game-planning the impotent Cards easy.

But the offensive line also struggled to incorporate new starters Alan Faneca (left guard) and Brandon Keith (right tackle) while moving Deuce Lutui from left guard to right guard and Levi Brown from right tackle to left tackle.

The rushing game was hampered by Beanie Wells' early season knee surgery and Tim Hightower's fumbling and unexpected blocking issues.

The prevailing belief is that, with a competent quarterback, many of these problems will dissipate. Kurt Warner masked a lot of the Cards' deficiencies in a two-year run from 2008-2009.

But Arizona has a new offensive coordinator, potential holes to fill on the offensive line and an overcrowded backfield. With the valuable reps normally gained from OTAs now lost, and the free-agent period likely to be short and frenzied, there is warranted concern.

"Angst? Every club has that this year," Miller said. "You always want to have free agency before the draft and then get your work in, but unfortunately that's not the way it went this year."

Arizona stunned everyone on draft day when it selected Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams with its second-round selection (38th overall), giving the Cards four backs who should demand significant reps in Williams, Wells, Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt insisted the move was not intended as a wake-up call for Wells or Hightower. The Cards wanted to add playmakers to a team woefully short in that area, and Williams was too highly rated on Arizona's draft board to pass.

"Can you ever be overstocked at a position in this league?" Whisenhunt asked. "We used all four backs last year. There were times when we only had one available to us. We had three guys that were nicked up."

The Cards did use four backs last season, but Jason Wright came in mostly for pass protection and blocking, carrying the ball only six times while catching eight passes. In Wells, Hightower and Williams, the Cards have three backs who can carry a heavy load while Stephens-Howling gives them a third-down or change-of-pace back.

It's possible the Cards will keep all four players in the short term while they sort out their strengths. Whisenhunt loves competition at every position. But it's hard to envision all four remaining for the long run.

Hightower led the team in rushing last season with 736 yards (4.8 per carry), but his 10 fumbles over the past two seasons are tied for the second most in the NFL over that span. He's a prime candidate for release because he has never been viewed as a starting NFL back and his rookie contract has expired (the Cards made him a tender offer before the lockout began).

Perhaps more telling is the fact that Williams' arrival comes only two years after the Cards spent a first-round pick on Wells. If Wells had lived up to his potential, that would not have happened.

"I just look at it as more competition," Wells said. "We didn't have success in the run game last season. I'm not sure it was all due to the running back position, but I understand why they did this."

Despite an ankle injury on the first day of 2009 training camp, Wells had a productive rookie season, gaining 793 yards with seven touchdowns and a 4.5-yard average. But he had arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus and remove loose cartilage from his right knee after the team's final 2010 preseason game. The surgery was compounded by an allergic reaction to a medical injection in that knee in November.

Wells numbers dropped to 397 yards, 3.4 per carry and two touchdowns as he tried to overcome the knee issues.

"It got better late in the season, but it never felt 100 percent," he said.

Of the Cards' four backs, Wells is the most expensive, having signed a five-year contract worth $11.8 million in 2009, including $6.3 million guaranteed (the fifth year is a team option). Wells says he's not concerned by the drafting of Williams. But he also acknowledged that 2011 is important for his value -- in Arizona or elsewhere.

"I want to prove that I'm one of the elite running backs in this league," he said. "First and foremost, I want to play in Arizona because they drafted me and believed in me. But you have to keep your options open. If this does mean the end of my time in Arizona, then so be it. I'm going to continue to play football, and I know I'll have a chance to do that somewhere."

Wells isn't the only Cardinal who could be moving on. Depending on the new free-agency rules, Lutui, a five-year veteran, could become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Since Faneca retired last month, the possibility exists that the Cards will have two new starting guards to protect whichever quarterback they land this offseason.

"It's definitely not ideal," said center Lyle Sendlein, who also has an expired contract as he enters his fifth NFL season, but is likely to re-sign. "Continuity is important to any offensive line. It's up to us to come together no matter who's on the field, but it would be nice not to have so much change for a second straight year."

Lutui is still miffed about a contract holdout in 2010 training camp that netted him nothing.

"I got the same $1.73 million tender offer in the mail after the season," he said. "I was like, 'Man, you've got to be kidding. What does this mean?' It got me mad all over again."

Lutui believes he is a core member of the team that went to the Super Bowl, so he doesn't understand why the team hasn't extended his contract. If he does become a free agent, he will almost certainly go to the highest bidder. And he is well aware that Faneca's retirement puts the Cards in a tenuous spot.

"I'm loving my options right now," he said. "I'm looking to cash in on my experience in this business. If it happens here, the Cardinals know they'll get my best effort and I'll be a great teammate. But if it happens that I'm a free agent, it doesn't matter where I go. It's my turn."

The Cards did not draft any offensive linemen, leaving veteran Rex Hadnot as the current replacement for Faneca with guard/tackle Jeremy Bridges as insurance if Lutui leaves.

Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves have promised to be aggressive once the free-agency period opens, but remaking the offensive line for a second successive season would seem to be an ill-conceived plan with a new quarterback under center.

"We're going to have an opportunity to address the other areas," Whisenhunt said. "We've put a lot of time in to prepare for that, and we're ready to go."

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