Despite objections from the Arizona Cardinals’ fan base, the starting running back will remain in that position coach Bruce Arians said this week.
With his turf toe healed, Mendenhall will be the starter for the foreseeable future. But after the opening snap, who gets the carries will be decided by the flow of the game.
Rashard Mendenhall, a six-year pro who is in his first season with Arizona, has 105 carries for 323 yards and three TDs through eight games this season.
“As we go into games, and as games unfold, different things happen, but the plan won’t change,” Arians said.
Rookie running back Andre Ellington played five more snaps against the Houston Texans on Sunday and finished with 13 more yards, but Mendenhall carried the ball 13 times to Ellington’s 11.
Mendenhall has been on the brunt side of criticism this season because of his perceived ineffectiveness. While Ellington is second in the NFL with 7.2 yards per carry, Mendenhall averages 3.1 yards but has 105 carries, almost twice as many as the rookie. Yet fumbles by Mendenhall, including one late in the fourth quarter Sunday that allowed the Texans to cut a 10-point deficit to three, haven’t put him in the good graces of Cards’ fans.
“That’s usually the second-string quarterback,” Arians joked. “But, no, that’s fine. Rashard can handle it. I can handle it.”
All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said Mendenhall doesn’t get criticized in the locker room, but rather embraced because of his experience. Mendenhall won Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is a postseason veteran.
“We enjoy him as a teammate. He’s a great addition for us,” Fitzgerald said. “He comes with a wealth of knowledge. He’s been very helpful to the young backs.”
Mendenhall’s role as the Cardinals’ feature back means more carries inside the tackles. His per-carry average is more of a reflection of the offensive line’s inability to block for the running backs during the first seven weeks of the season then it is his skills.
Against the Texans, Mendenhall had three carries compared to Ellington’s two in the first quarter, then Mendenhall had just one in the second, while Ellington had two more. In the third, Arizona rode Mendenhall with six carries. Ellington had four, two of which came in the wildcat.
In the fourth quarter, however, Mendenhall and Ellington each had three, while rookie Stepfan Taylor carried twice.
Despite the fumble, Mendenhall is still in favor with the coaches, who don’t plan on making a change anytime soon.
“Rashard is Rashard. We still believe in him,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “I still think he’s doing a great job, he just has to keep grinding.”