Since arriving in the NFL, LaRod Stephens-Howling has had one chance – in three-plus seasons – to be the Cardinals’ feature back in a game.
That was in the 2011 season finale, when the Cards decided not to march back out a gimpy Beanie Wells for what was essentially a meaningless outcome, and Ryan Williams was long done for the season. Stephens-Howling ended up with 21 attempts – a quarter of his 84 total career carries – and 93 rushing yards, and even now he shakes his head thinking he should have gained 100.
Stephens-Howling acknowledges he is a “situational back” for the Cardinals. That, given the Cardinals’ running back dilemma, has changed.
A chance for more carries “is what you dream about,” Stephens-Howling said. “That’s what I want.”
Williams’ season-ending shoulder injury, along with Wells’ status on temporary injured reserve until late November, hoists an important role to Stephens-Howling and his backfield mates William Powell and Alfonso Smith. The Cardinals did not add another running back this week. This trio, who carried the load for the Cards in the preseason as Wells and Williams were used sparingly, now must do it in the regular season.
“It means they trust us and we have done good enough that they can put us in those situations,” Smith said.
The Cards’ run game has not produced as they had hoped. In back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Eagles the Cards gained 102 and 99 yards rushing as a team, not great but enough in the scheme of the win. But that faded in the past two games with fewer attempts while playing from behind and stout defensive fronts against the Dolphins and Rams.
Between coach Ken Whisenhunt and the offensive players, a version of “We have to run the ball better” has been a constant comment, although quarterback
“We’ve seen teams win a lot of different ways in this league,” Kolb said. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”
There was no rush to add another running back, however, because the Cardinals believe they have talent in-house. That starts with Stephens-Howling, who has had a rough 2012 thus far (only one yard on 12 carries, plus a couple games missed with a hip/groin problem) but who has earned Whisenhunt’s confidence over the years.
“There’s certainly proof he did it,” Whisenhunt said. “He ran well against a good defense in the Seattle game last year. He looked good doing it.”
Stephens-Howling isn’t thinking about the running back injuries – not only have Wells, Williams and Stephens-Howling dealt with issues, but
“I try to keep a clear mind,” Stephens-Howling said. “It hurts those guys are out, but that’s why you have a running back group.”
The same kind of quiet confidence comes from Smith, who was pressed into service as the main back last season in Seattle when Wells and Stephens-Howling were hurt and Chester Taylor proved ineffective. Smith gained 54 yards on 17 carries in a 13-10 loss, and added another 21 yards on three catches in that game.
He mostly played special teams last season, and was cut in favor of Powell at the end of training camp. But he was brought back when Wells was hurt and now looks like he’ll stick around the balance of the season with Williams down again.
“It’s nothing new,” Smith said. “It’s the business and I have been through this my entire career – I went through it in high school, went through it in college. I know what it takes to step in.
“I’ve already been cut. I know how it feels. I am extremely focused.”
What the Cardinals can’t be sure about is what Powell will bring, although they were impressed when he was able to lead the NFL in rushing in the preseason, flashing skill whenever he had a chance. It’s why he beat out Smith, and why the Cards hope he can make an impact now.
Powell was brought in on the practice squad at the end of last season after doing well in training camp. After the Cards cut him then, he went back to school in Kansas and worked in a Best Buy warehouse still hoping he’d get an NFL chance.
Whisenhunt said it wasn’t easy to learn much about Powell when he was on the practice squad but he showed a lot in the offseason and during camp. Powell not only can run and catch, but his pass protection has been good, which is crucial to get playing time.
“I always dream big,” Powell said. “Set your goals high. Even (when) I was at home, I was praying for my chance, kept working out, staying ready. I can’t say I knew I’d be in this situation I’m in now, but hopefully I’ll make the best of it.
“I honestly don’t know how much of the load I will get, but it’s an opportunity.”