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Million-dollar backfield? Cardinals sure hope so

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted June 07, 2011 @ 2:31 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

The recent death of Hall of Fame RB John Henry Johnson helped revive one of the great football nicknames of yore — the famed "Million Dollar Backfield" that included Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry.

But the nickname had earlier origins. It was actually the Cardinals — whose original home was in Chicago — that had the first Million Doillar Backfield. Pat Harder, Elmer Angsman, Paul Christman and Charley Trippi formed this group in 1947, which led to an NFL title, the most recent in franchise history. They were called this because owner Charles Bidwill had signed Trippi to a $100,000 contract, which was the largest of the day. And though Bidwill tragically died days after signing Trippi and wasn't able to see the title come to fruition, the foursome was at its best in the '47 championship game as Trippi and Angsman scored all four TDs in the 28-21 victory over the Eagles.

Fast-forward 64 years, and the Cardinals are in full rebuilding mode. Yet again.

But if there is a ray of hope, it's in their backfield. Really, it might be a $5 million backfield if you add up the compensation this season of Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams, Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling — the question now is whether the inflation will be worth it.

Drafting Williams near the top of Round Two threw some folks for a loop, considering the logjam the team appeared to have at running back. But the Cardinals had him ranked as their 15th-best player (and top running back) and want to have the kind of rushing attack that can physically pound opposing teams, much like what Ken Whisenhunt had when he was calling plays for the Steelers.

There's a case to be made for this type of approach.

The Cardinals, you probably are aware, don't currently have a starting quarterback. They will go after Kevin Kolb hard once league business opens, and if that falls through they will go after another veteran QB. John Skelton and Max Hall proved they are not NFL-ready, although they are still development-worthy.

It's a lot easier to run block than pass block, so the retirement of OG Alan Faneca should be easier to overcome, even if his replacement won't have that kind of talent or résumé.

If you look at the Cardinals' schedule, they might be able to win a few games right away. They face the Panthers, Redskins and Seahawks, all of whom ranked in the 20s against the run last season. Typically, the rookies who can adjust to the NFL the quickest — especially in this lockout-plagued season — are running backs on offense and defensive linemen on defense. Williams might be able to step in and produce immediately.

Right now, it's a four-man backfield, but it's not clear if it will stay that way. The drafting of Williams, many felt, meant curtains for Wells. But it would be early and surprising if the team gave up on him after only two seasons, even if they have been disappointing.

You could see Wells getting some first- and second-down carries. Williams will too, so perhaps they will alternate series. Hightower can be the goal-line back, although the leg-churning and powerful Williams showed quite a nose for the endzone in college as well. Stephens-Howling has handled the third-down role well, and he's a factor on special teams. You could make the case that the four-man operation makes a lot of sense for a rebuilding offense, even one that has a special talent in WR Larry Fitzgerald. The argument might be that having three or four quality runners only makes Fitz more dangerous.

If it does go down that way, the Cardinals might not be alone in that approach. Witness that of the Patriots — the team many others try to mimic — and what they have done to date this offseason. They not only drafted two running backs in the first three rounds in Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley to go along with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, but they also selected two offensive linemen and a blocking tight end. And they have Tom Brady, for crying out loud!

After all, if this approach if good enough for New England, why can't it work to a degree in Arizona? Kolb or whomever else the Cardinals land at QB, they are not going to be world beaters in Year One. Kurt Warner isn't coming back, and the next Cardinals quarterback won't be in that kind of an offense.

The power run game is the safest offensive play in football. It's man against man. It's what Whisenhunt likes and knows the best. The Cardinals had all sorts of problems with identity and execution last season, so who's to say this can't be effective?

It might not be the Million Dollar Backfield exactly, but this quartet could help bring the club back to respectability. It's the surest and most direct way to remake this team.

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