NFC West: Tim Hightower

Tim HightowerAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the previous two days we featured Kurt Warner's 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald during a loss in Super Bowl XLIII and Karlos Dansby's fumble return for a touchdown in overtime of a wild-card game against Green Bay in the 2009 season. Please vote for your choice as the Cardinals' most memorable play.

Score: Cardinals 32, Eagles 25
Date: Jan. 18, 2009 Site: University of Phoenix Stadium

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Which is the most memorable play in Cardinals' history?

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Sometimes a memorable play doesn't include a touchdown, sack or interception. Sometimes it's one of those plays that lets fans breathe for a second, move away from the edge of their seat and know their team lived to see another down.

When Tim Hightower took a handoff from Kurt Warner on fourth-and-1 on the Philadelphia 49 with 7 minutes, 57 seconds left in the NFC Championship Game of the 2008 season, there wasn't a back flush against a seat.

Everyone knew if the Eagles regained possession they could milk the clock, making it incredibly tough for the Cardinals to reach their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Everyone knew there could be bigger plays, but at that moment this was the play that could define the season. When Hightower ran right and was pushed out of bounds after gaining 6 yards -- and one of the most important first downs in franchise history -- everyone exhaled. There were still 43 yards to go to overtake the Eagles, but at least there was hope.

That drive wasn't over. There was still a third down to be converted. But that fourth-down run by Hightower kept the hopes and dreams of an entire organization alive, and it eventually paid off when Arizona overtook the Eagles with a touchdown pass from Warner to Hightower with just under three minutes left. That pass was memorable as well, but it wouldn't have been possible without Hightower getting those 6 yards.

Mailbag: Should 49ers trade Crabtree?

January, 29, 2012
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Brandon from Winston Salem, N.C., thinks the San Francisco 49ers should consider trading Michael Crabtree after the team's wide receivers failed to produce much during the playoffs. He says Crabtree has questioned Alex Smith's validity as the starter in the past and notes that the current staff would have little invested in Crabtree, anyway.

Mike Sando: Mixed feelings here. Crabtree was the best wide receiver on the team once Josh Morgan suffered a season-ending injury. He was sometimes an outstanding blocker, too. And when the team needed him to make a clutch catch at Seattle in Week 16, Crabtree delivered. Subtracting him from the roster would make the team worse at the position.

But I also sense a disconnect. The trust between Smith and Crabtree doesn't appear to be as strong as it should be. That could be because Crabtree has spent almost no time practicing with the team during minicamps and training camps. That should finally change this offseason. Is now really the time to bail on what could still become a productive relationship? It could be, but ...

The 49ers would not get a great deal in return for Crabtree, in my view. I would recommend trading Crabtree only if the new coaching staff had witnessed things behind the scenes indicating Crabtree was unwilling to buy in or put in the necessary work.


Greg from Seattle thinks Tom Brady was a stretch for inclusion on the Any Era team in part because the league changed rules to protect quarterbacks after Brady suffered a knee injury. He doesn't think Brady would hold up physically the way football was played in previous eras, without all the extra safety measures.

Mike Sando: That's an interesting point. However, Brady won three Super Bowls before suffering that knee injury. I also love the way he makes a point to rise from the ground before the man who hit him. I also think his extraordinarily strong fundamentals would translate to any era.


Mick from Brooklyn thinks the Seattle Seahawks could still have interest in Matt Flynn even though they made no effort to acquire the Green Bay quarterback before ultimately acquiring Charlie Whitehurst from San Diego. He thinks Seahawks general manager John Schneider simply might have realized the Packers weren't going to trade Flynn at that point.

Mike Sando: That is possible, but I've still never heard any rumblings suggesting Seattle has interest in Flynn.


Kelphelper from Anchorage sees five positives for the Seahawks in the 49ers' defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC title game:
  • Seattle, having defeated Baltimore and nearly defeated San Francisco, has now defeated a Super Bowl team thanks to its victory over New York;
  • It's always good for Seattle fans when the 49ers lose a big game they should have won;
  • The manner in which the 49ers lost could diminish the impact of their otherwise successful season;
  • Two weeks of 49ers Super Bowl hype is out the window;
  • The NFC West blog will finally have more content relevant to the Seahawks.
Mike Sando: I'm a big believer in positive thinking, but usually not at the expense of another. Getting the 49ers in the Super Bowl would have been great for NFC West perceptions. All four teams in the division would have been to a Super Bowl since the 2001 season. The tough part for the 49ers is know just how hard it is to get back into a position where they only needed a home victory to reach the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks have a lot going for them independent of the 49ers' fate. The Week 16 game at Seattle should have affirmed for the 49ers' coaches and personnel people how close behind Seattle could be in the NFC West. Both teams have promising young talent. The 49ers were ahead of the Seahawks in their development and in their talent procurement. But I think everyone watching NFC West games closely over the second half of the season saw signs the 49ers will have their hands full in 2012.


Abel from Mesa, Ariz., wants to know what 2012 pick Arizona acquired from Washington in the Tim Hightower trade.

Mike Sando: Arizona will receive a sixth-round pick in return. The pick would have upgraded to a fifth-rounder if Hightower had played at least 60.41 percent of the Redskins' offensive snaps, according to an item Kent Somers published back in October, before a knee injury sidelined Hightower for the season.

Hightower wound up playing about 20 percent of the Redskins' offensive snaps.


Jim from Tucson wants to know which areas the Cardinals need to upgrade most this offseason. He points to offensive tackle, wide receiver and outside linebacker.

Mike Sando: The receiver situation is OK as long as Larry Fitzgerald is there. Yes, the team should try to improve the position, but I would not point to receiver as a big problem for the team. Offensive tackle is rightly atop your list. The Cardinals could really use two new tackles. Brandon Keith has injury concerns. Jeremy Bridges is as good as he's ever going to be. Levi Brown isn't really the answer, and his contract will need addressing anyway.

On defense, I would want to continue upgrading the speed at linebacker. Paris Lenon deserves all of our respect for bucking the odds and remaining a starter at age 34, but should he really be the best option at this point? Perhaps Stewart Bradley figures out things in his second year with the team.

All of this assumes the Cardinals re-sign Calais Campbell or use the franchise tag on him. They cannot let him get away.


Eugene from Los Angeles disputes the notion that the Rams' community-building efforts in St. Louis indicate the team isn't acting as though it plans to leave the region. The way Eugene sees things, "business people make business decisions, and the sooner the yokels in St. Louis realize this, the less devastated they'll be if the team moves. Will the team move? I have no idea, but I want ONE person in St. Louis to articulate how, for Stan Kroenke, staying in St. Louis long term is preferable to moving to Los Angeles."

Mike Sando: Only the city of St. Louis can make it preferable. Right now, Los Angeles is like an impressive college prospect -- appealing for its potential. I'll pose the challenge here. Why should Kroenke prefer St. Louis over Los Angeles for the long term?

Wrap-up: Cardinals 20, Browns 17 (OT)

December, 18, 2011
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Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 20-17 overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 15:

What it means: The Cardinals improved to 7-7 with an overtime victory that kept alive their playoff hopes. Arizona would have been eliminated from postseason contention had it lost because Detroit defeated Oakland. Patrick Peterson's 32-yard punt return in overtime proved pivotal as Arizona won for the sixth time in seven games following a 1-6 start to the season. A winning season remains a possibility for Arizona.

What I liked: Quarterback John Skelton led a touchdown drive right before halftime and again when the Cardinals switched to a no-huddle offense after falling behind 17-7 in the second half. Receiver Andre Roberts continued a strong run late in the season, catching the touchdown pass late in the first half. Second-year outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield collected sacks on back-to-back plays, forcing a turnover on the second one. That put the Cardinals in position to kick the tying field goal, erasing that 10-point deficit. A challenge from Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt changed O'Brien's second sack from a sack and incomplete to sack and forced fumble, with Arizona recovering at the Cleveland 5. This was a huge reversal for the Cardinals. Skelton set up the winning field goal by finding a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald for a 32-yard gain on third-and-6. Skelton finished with 313 yards passing.

What I didn't like: The Arizona defense, though improved in recent weeks, gave up a seven-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to open the game. Peyton Hillis ran effectively against the Cardinals on this drive. The Cardinals also had trouble containing Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace, who scrambled and found Greg Little open for a 76-yard touchdown. Penalties against Jeff King and Nick Eason in the return game forced Arizona to start two drives deep in its own territory. Poor red zone execution, specifically a botched shovel pass that led to a sack on first-and-goal from the 5, contributed to the Cardinals settling for the tying fourth-quarter field goal when a touchdown would have given them the lead.

Milestones: Beanie Wells scored his 10th rushing touchdown of the season. He joined Tim Hightower (2008) and Donny Anderson (1973) as the most recent Cardinals players to reach that mark. Tight end Todd Heap also passed a milestone, passing Hall of Famer and ex-St. Louis Cardinals tight end Jackie Harris for 11th on the NFL's all-time list for receptions by tight ends.

What's next: The Cardinals visit the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16.

NFC West injury situations that matter

November, 23, 2011
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Arizona: Quarterback Kevin Kolb appears close to returning from the toe and foot injuries that have sidelined him since Oct. 30. He estimated taking more than a third of the reps in practice Wednesday. All signs point to a likely return for Kolb against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, but he'll need to continue practicing to work through some of the rust. Tight ends Todd Heap and Rob Housler were limited, as was running back Beanie Wells. Injuries at quarterback, running back and tight end will affect any offense. Wells' knee hasn't let him carry a full load, costly for the Cardinals after the team traded Tim Hightower and lost Ryan Williams to injured reserve.

St. Louis: The Rams are severely limited at offensive tackle and cornerback. Those are tough areas to be so shorthanded against Arizona. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell is an imminent threat to the Rams' offensive line after St. Louis lost both starting tackles and its backup left tackle. Larry Fitzgerald obviously faces favorable matchups against the Rams' secondary now that St. Louis has placed 10 cornerbacks on injured reserve. The Rams practiced without their defensive leader Wednesday — middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has a foot injury. Losing him would prove devastating. The situation at tight end is also limiting the Rams. Mike Hoomanawanui is out for the season. Promising rookie tight end Lance Kendricks suffered a concussion against Seattle and was limited Wednesday.

San Francisco: Receiver Michael Crabtree (foot), cornerback Chris Culliver (shoulder), tackle Anthony Davis (ankle), receiver Braylon Edwards (knee) and running back Frank Gore (knee) were limited in practice Wednesday and listed as probable for Thursday. The team does not expect to have fullback Bruce Miller (concussion) for its game at Baltimore. The 49ers' relative strength and versatility at tight end affords them flexibility in dealing with injuries at fullback and wide receiver. The team doesn't need to lean heavily on three-receiver groupings because tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are good receivers. Veteran fullback Moran Norris could return this week. The 49ers also use nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga as a fullback in certain situations.

Seattle: The biggest concern, in my view, centers around whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can remain in the lineup for the remainder of the season as he plays through a pectoral injury. Jackson was limited Wednesday. He's facing a Redskins defense featuring strong outside rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Defensive tackle Alan Branch (ankle), cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle), receiver Ben Obomanu (knee/ankle) and receiver Sidney Rice (knee) did not practice. The Seahawks have sufficient depth at all those players' positions and most of those players are expected to be available Sunday.
The Arizona Cardinals emerged from the 2011 NFL draft with three starting-caliber halfbacks.

Beanie Wells is the healthiest of the three, and he's got a knee injury that could sideline him indefinitely. Tim Hightower, traded to Washington as training camps were beginning, will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a torn ACL. Ryan Williams, drafted to replace Hightower and push Wells for the starting job in Arizona, suffered a torn patella during preseason and will not return until next season.

The Cardinals thought Wells might be headed for injured reserve Sunday, coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. But tests showed Wells suffered no structural damage to the knee. Swelling is a problem for now. It's unclear when Wells might return, but he'll be back this season.

Durability has been a concern for Wells, but the truth is, running backs get hurt.

Seattle lost Marshawn Lynch to back trouble during warmups Sunday. Tampa Bay was down to its third-string back Sunday. Denver's Willis McGahee suffered a broken hand. Oakland's Darren McFadden suffered a foot injury and did not return to the game.

In that context, the Cardinals can be grateful. They're playing a rugged Baltimore defense on the road in Week 8 before returning home to face the St. Louis Rams' last-ranked run defense, followed by a game against Philadelphia, another team with issues stopping the run.

Week 5 rematches: NFC West vengeance?

October, 5, 2011
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NFC West teams went 0-3 last season against the teams they face in Week 5.

They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.

Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:

Cardinals at Vikings

Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)

Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.

Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).

Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.

Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.

49ers vs. Buccaneers

Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0

Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.

Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.

Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.

Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.

Seahawks at Giants

Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7

Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.

Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.

Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?

Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.

Around the NFC West: Cardinals' defense

September, 19, 2011
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The first full-contact goal-line session of Arizona Cardinals training camp arrived amid some anticipation.

I stood along the back of the end zone and watched the offense push around the defense convincingly.

My take then: "Defensive coordinator Ray Horton should know by now he's not in Pittsburgh any longer." My take now: After two games, Horton really knows he's not in Pittsburgh. And just to be sure of it, Horton will have to watch the Steelers' defense during its Week 2 shutout against Seattle while preparing to face the Seahawks in a Week 3 game at CenturyLink Field.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says former Cardinals coordinators Clancy Pendergast and Billy Davis must be feeling some vindication after watching the Cardinals' defense allow more than 900 yards in the first two weeks of the season. Noted: I had similar thoughts watching the Washington Redskins amass 477 yards during a 22-21 victory against Arizona on Sunday. Not that the defense necessarily would have performed any better with Pendergast or Davis.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says former Cardinals running back Tim Hightower took credit for baiting his former team into a 15-yard penalty early in the game. Hightower called it knowing which buttons to push. Hightower: "I'm trying to think of all the adjectives that I could use right now that are coming to mind. Happy. It feels great. I tried to tell myself all week that this was just another game, but it wasn't. It meant a lot to me. I wanted this one really bad."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals are entering a critical stretch of seemingly winnable games, but their defense has to play better. On Kevin Kolb, whose 73-yard scoring pass to Larry Fitzgerald put Arizona ahead, 21-13: "I can see why coaches wanted Kolb. He can make all the necessary throws. He's tough. And he understands leadership. He takes more than his share of the blame for losses and other failures. That throw to Fitz and the hit he took? I don't see how anyone could watch that and think Kolb's not suited to be a good starter." Noted: The challenge for Kolb is playing aggressively without taking too many chances. Kolb agreed Sunday that this is a line he walks.

Around the NFC West: Bradford's recovery

September, 15, 2011
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The replay showed St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford making his usual follow-through, except for one thing. His right index finger snagged on Juqua Parker's hand as the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive lineman contested the pass.

It's somewhat amazing to me that Bradford didn't suffer a broken finger on the play. Bradford somehow completed a 31-yard pass down the left sideline to a diving Brandon Gibson one play later before leaving the game.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says there's no doubt about Bradford's availability in Week 2. The quarterback practiced without restriction Wednesday. Bradford: "I really was worried about it. I wouldn't have come out of the game if it wasn't serious. I couldn't feel (the finger). I couldn't move it that night, and so I really was concerned. But our training staff's done a great job. It's starting to come around." Noted: Bradford took pride in taking every offensive snap during his 2010 rookie season. His exit from the game seemed to signal something serious. I'll be interested to see whether Bradford takes more snaps from the shotgun formation while the finger heals. The velocity generated during a snap is greater than one might imagine, complicating center exchanges for quarterbacks with hand injuries.

Also from Thomas: a chat transcript with thoughts on the Rams. Thomas: "The game plan going in was to try to run the ball on Philly's undersized front seven and mix in play action. Last time I checked the Eagles had arguably the best trio of corners in the league. Not many people get open against them. That doesn't mean you don't try. But I think the game underscored the fact that the Rams don't have anyone that can stretch defenses other than Danario Alexander, who was inactive. It also takes more time for most downfield throws, and the pass-blocking Sunday was far from superb, particularly after it became a 2-score game." Noted: I'd say pass protection and dropped passes hurt the Rams' passing game as much as anything.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says the Rams are making adjustments to their secondary.

John Boyle of the Everett Herald says Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is building up the Seahawks even though oddsmakers have made Seattle at least a two-touchdown underdog in Pittsburgh. Boyle: "Tomlin seemingly couldn't say enough good things about the Seahawks. And while it's nothing new for a coach to say nice things about an opponent, Tomlin takes it to a Lou Holtz level."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com runs through highlights and notes from Wednesday.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic draws up the perfect analogy for Tim Hightower's first game against his former Arizona Cardinals teammates: "Like anyone about to see the ex for the first time since the breakup, Tim Hightower wants to prove that he's doing fine, and in the process, maybe make his former partners realize how good they had it." Noted: Hightower carried 25 times for 72 yards and one touchdown for the Redskins in Week 1. His 2.9-yard average was down from 4.8 over the 2010 season with Arizona.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the NFL will not fine Richard Marshall for the cornerback's hit on Panthers cornerback Cam Newton, an indication officials erred in calling Marshall for a personal foul. Also, the Cardinals gave a tryout to former Rams receiver Donnie Avery. Noted: The call against Marshall wiped out what would have been a second interception for Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com asks 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin for thoughts on the team's struggles running the ball against Seattle in the opener. Goodwin: "They have a pretty decent group up front. And for whatever reasons, they probably played a little better in the run game. I know we didn't have that many yards rushing. So that's something we won't be happy with."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers knew they were going to have problems running the ball against Seattle, largely because of Earl Thomas' presence in the Seahawks' secondary. Barrows: "During the lead-up to the Seattle game, both Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were asked separately about the Seahawks defense. The first name out of both of their mouths was Thomas', and he lived up to their compliments. ... One sequence in the second quarter typifies what happened with the 49ers run game on Sunday. ... Alex Smith pitches wide to his left to Gore. Tight ends Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis block down on Seahawk defenders and left tackle Joe Staley, who is very good at hitting moving targets, goes wide and absolutely crushes Kam Chancellor. Gore seemingly has plenty of room to pick up the first down and much more, but Thomas, who was initially 15 yards from the play, comes streaking in, steers Gore back to the inside and then cuts him down after only a yard pickup."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers value Smith's mobility.

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explores Davis' affinity for fine artwork. Davis, a studio art major at Maryland, likes Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Clark.
Tim Hightower was driving from Phoenix to Arizona Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff when the call came from coach Ken Whisenhunt.

The Cardinals, having used a 2011 second-round draft choice for running back Ryan Williams, were trading Hightower to the Washington Redskins. Hightower will naturally have extra incentive to play well when his former team visits FedEx Field in Week 2, but not out of vengeance.


"In this business, I’ve seen a lot of things take place, and there weren’t any bitter feelings," Hightower told reporters Wednesday. "It wasn’t anything negative. I have nothing but a great deal of respect for Arizona. I have a lot of good memories with Arizona."

Hightower grew up in Alexandria, Va., and went to Episcopal High School there. He also played at the University of Richmond.

"A lot of thoughts and emotions -- excitement, some sadness, just a lot of emotions all at once," Hightower said of his mindset following the trade.

The 10 rushing touchdowns Hightower scored during the Cardinals' 2008 Super Bowl season were the most since Donny Anderson finished the 1973 season with 10. Johnny Roland had 10 for the Cardinals' 1967 team. Lane MacArthur, Ernie Nevers and John David Crow are the only players in franchise history with more than 10 in one season. Seasons were shorter when they played.

Arizona might have held onto Hightower had the team known Williams would suffer a season-ending knee injury during preseason. The timing worked out well for Hightower, however, because he got the trade news before showing up for camp. That was important to him because it spared Hightower from committing fully for another season, then abruptly withdrawing.

Beanie Wells carried 18 times for 90 yards and a touchdown for the Cardinals during their opening-week victory over Carolina. That was the second-highest total for Wells' career. He rushed for 110 yards against Detroit as a rookie in 2009.

"There was a lot of hype around him coming in to replace me, us splitting roles, being at each other's throats and kind of divided," Hightower said. "But it actually ended up being a close relationship, one of the closest relationships that I’ve had to this day. I learned a lot from Beanie, and I feel like he learned a lot from me. We challenged each other, we pushed each other, and I think he made me a better player."

Intelligence report: Arizona Cardinals

September, 1, 2011
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Five things to know about the Arizona Cardinals, straight from our newly published 2011 preview:

1. Kolb has to be the guy: The Cardinals are paying Kevin Kolb about what Sam Bradford will receive for the next five years. That puts Arizona's commitment level in perspective. Coach Ken Whisenhunt is all-in on this one. The team should know this season whether Kolb is going to be the answer. Early returns are encouraging. Kolb has shown a dynamic personality that lends itself to leadership. He has shown a clear understanding of the No. 1 rule in Arizona: Throw the ball to Larry Fitzgerald when he's open, and throw it to him anyway when he's not.

2. Ray Horton is not a magician: The Cardinals' new defensive coordinator has the right pedigree. He learned under Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. It doesn't get much better than that. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Horton could not bring with him from Pittsburgh the outside pass-rushers who have helped the Steelers field such a strong defense. Neither can Horton wave a magic wand to make Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho turn into elite edge rushers. Look for the Cardinals to get creative with their inside linebackers. They also need to generate pressure with their safeties. Adrian Wilson can be a formidable blitzer, but he's dealing with a biceps injury.

3. Kolb's health is in focus: Kolb left the Eagles' 2010 regular-season opener with a concussion. He's now joining a Cardinals team without elite pass protectors at either tackle spot. Running back Beanie Wells hasn't been consistent in protection, either. It's important for Kolb to keep his competitive nature in check when scrambling or deciding what to do with the ball. Fitzgerald has praised Kolb for getting rid of the football quickly. Kurt Warner set the standard in that area. Kolb must follow suit. He's not the sturdiest or most physical quarterback. He needs to be smart with his body because the Cardinals don't have a backup with nearly the same abilities.

4. The schedule sets up favorably: The Cardinals face some tough stretches, but they begin and end the season with games that appear quite manageable. Carolina (home) and Washington (road) are first on the schedule. Arizona plays four of its final five games at home. None of the Cardinals' final five opponents even had a winning record last season. Arizona struggled late last season despite playing a cushy schedule. The addition of Kolb gives the Cardinals a better chance to beat the teams they're supposed to beat. Even average play from Kolb could be enough to challenge for a division title.

5. Make-or-break year for Beanie Wells: The third-year back finds himself in position to become the week-to-week starter now that Tim Hightower (traded) and Ryan Williams (injured) aren't options. Wells remains an intriguing prospect. He has 292 carries for 1,190 yards and nine touchdowns during his first two seasons, with only two starts. Wells has the ability to double his career production in a single season as the full-time starter. Backs starting every game last season averaged 288 carries. It's just tough to trust Wells over the course of a full season. He has been hurt too much and running back is a brutal position. Steven Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall, Cedric Benson, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Ronnie Brown were the only running backs to start all 16 games last season.
NFC West teams drafted four players in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft.

The St. Louis Rams' Chris Long is the only one employed by an NFC West team.

Kentwan Balmer, chosen 29th overall by the San Francisco 49ers that year, had been holding on with Seattle. The Seahawks released him Wednesday after re-signing running back Vai Taua.

This may or may not be the end for Balmer in the NFC West, but with him gone for now, here's a quick look at what became of that 2008 first-round class in the division:
  • Long: The Rams are increasingly getting sufficient return on a sizable investment after making Long the second player chosen overall. Long has become a consistently productive player since moving to the left side of the line. He had 8.5 sacks last season.
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: The Cardinals chose him 16th overall and liked what Rodgers-Cromartie offered. "DRC" went to one Pro Bowl before suffering through a down 2010 season. The Cardinals sent him to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb trade.
  • Lawrence Jackson: The Seahawks drafted the defensive end 28th overall. Jackson started slowly and didn't fit when the team changed its scheme. Seattle traded Jackson to Detroit, where defensive ends face favorable matchup situations thanks to Ndamukong Suh's presence on the interior. Jackson had six sacks in 2010.
  • Balmer: Nolan Nawrocki's pre-draft assessment for Pro Football Weekly ended this way: "Can disappear and fail to make an impact, and his overall career production is discouraging. ... Has some intriguing natural tools, but must first demonstrate that he is not motivated strictly by a contract. Could be satisfied as a career underachiever."

Among the good value picks for NFC West teams in that 2008 draft: Calais Campbell, Red Bryant, Tim Hightower, Josh Morgan, Brandon Keith and Justin Forsett.

Foresight 20-20 on Hightower trade

August, 22, 2011
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One of my regular Facebook correspondents, Jeremy, is an Arizona Cardinals fan I met down at University of Phoenix Stadium a couple of seasons ago.

Jeremy reached out over the weekend to say the Cardinals would happily undo the Tim Hightower trade now that running back Ryan Williams is out for the season. He characterized Hightower's trade to the Washington Redskins "premature" and lamented what Arizona received in return (Vonnie Holliday and a sixth-round pick).

[+] EnlargeTim Hightower
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireThe Cardinals traded Tim Hightower this offseason to the Redskins for Vonnie Holliday and a draft choice.
I pulled a Ken Whisenhunt at this point, noting that hindsight was 20-20. As Whisenhunt suggested, no one could have reasonably known Williams would suffer a torn patella tendon. But it wasn't hindsight in Jeremy's case. Looking back at our conversation, he questioned the trade back on Aug. 5:
I think Hightower's departure was premature. At least until the Cards know what they have in the Beanie [Wells]/Williams duo. I was looking forward to having all three. Nothing wrong with having too many quality backs fighting for carries. That's a good problem to have. I don't think the return for the Hightower trade was worth sacrificing a quality option at RB. Especially for a team that needs to surround [Kevin] Kolb with as many options as possible in order to make the initial sell to the portion of the fanbase that's critical of the Kolb deal, myself not among them.

Trading Hightower brought clarity to the running back position while improving the Cardinals' veteran depth on their defensive line. The team was ready to move forward with Wells and Williams. Both were going to need extensive work in practice and in preseason games. Hightower probably wasn't going to command appreciably more value later in the process.

But with Williams on injured reserve, there's no question Hightower would have greater value to the Cardinals at this time. Jeremy gets credit for having the foresight to question the trade weeks before Williams' injury made this a relevant subject again. My biggest concern with the trade from Arizona's perspective was whether the team could trust Wells or Williams in pass-protection to the degree it could trust Hightower. But there was little chance Hightower was going to stick on the roster if all parties were healthy. And there was no way to predict which players might get hurt.

Think of it this way: What if the Cardinals had held off on the trade, only to have Hightower suffer a serious injury during camp or the preseason? We'd be wondering why the Cardinals held onto a depreciating asset.
Looking back upon three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' 28-20 preseason defeat at Green Bay on Friday night:

1. Pass-rush inflation: The Cardinals did get pressure on Aaron Rodgers at times, but not from their outside linebackers. Darnell Dockett was active and dominant, appearing healthier than he was last season. Fellow defensive end Calais Campbell also got pressure. O'Brien Schofield repeatedly pressured Matt Flynn once the backups were in the game. That was a good sign for Arizona, but also a reflection of that inflation referenced in the lead-in to this item. Green Bay allowed five sacks in its first preseason game. This one offered more of the same. I'd be interested in seeing Schofield work with the first-team defense in the next preseason game. Joey Porter and Clark Haggans don't need the work as much at this point in their careers.

2. Running back ball security: Ball security was the least of the Cardinals' worries at running back once rookie second-round choice Ryan Williams left the game on a motorized cart. Williams suffered an injured right knee after a Packers player landed on him. The Cardinals quickly announced that Williams would not return. They'll know more upon receiving MRI results. Arizona's ground game was generally strong against Green Bay. Beanie Wells ran hard and protected the ball through some hard collisions. It's looking like the Cardinals might need a lot more of that after Williams' injury. Tim Hightower, traded to Washington after the team drafted Williams, had a 58-yard run and a 1-yard touchdown run for the Redskins on Friday night.

3. Kevin Kolb affirmations: The Cardinals' new quarterback wisely kept throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, covered or not. The diving one-handed catch Fitzgerald made wasn't even a one-handed catch. He caught the ball between his forearm and shoulder pad. Kolb: "They had a drop-eight situation where the back was getting out underneath him, so I just tried to get it to a spot where he couldn’t get it and I knew Larry was going to try to do something special, and he did. I didn’t mean to put it out that far, but it is nice to have somebody on your side that can make those kinds of plays. Playmaking is not a problem for us. For us it is about cleaning up the details." There were times when Kolb held the ball too long, inviting pressure a couple of times and throwing too late for an open Fitzgerald another time. I thought Kolb's offensive line generally held up well in protection. Having Clay Matthews watching from the sideline had to help. The Cardinals sustained two long drives with Kolb in the lineup, but they settled for field goals on both of them. Penalties were a problem.

Awaiting word on Cards' Ryan Williams

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
10:03
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The Arizona Cardinals' offense took a hit Friday night when rookie running back Ryan Williams left the team's preseason game against Green Bay on a motorized cart.

Replays showed a Packers player landing on the back of Williams' lower right leg.

There was no immediate word on the severity of the injury, but replays left the impression the injury could be serious. Williams had dazzled during training camp and was expected to push Beanie Wells for the starting job eventually.

Arizona traded running back Tim Hightower to the Washington Redskins after the Cardinals used a second-round choice for Williams. Wells ran aggressively and effectively against the Packers. Injury problems have slowed him previously.

LaRod Stephens-Howling and Alfonso Smith are the only other halfbacks on the roster. Reagan Maui'a and Anthony Sherman are fullbacks.

UPDATE: The Cardinals said Williams injured his knee and would not return to the game.

Three things: Cardinals-Packers

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
9:15
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Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' Week 2 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET:


1. Pass-rush inflation: The Cardinals eagerly await a breakout pass-rushing performance from one of their younger players, notably rookie Sam Acho or second-year pro O'Brien Schofield. If it happens, great for Arizona, but let's see how many come at Aaron Rodgers' expense. Rodgers took zero sacks against Cleveland in the Packers' preseason opener. He left the game with a glittering stat line: 6-of-8 passing for 74 yards, one touchdown and a 142.7 passer rating. Backups Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell combined to take five sacks once Rodgers left the game. Side note on preseason sacks: Carolina led the NFL with 19 last preseason. The Panthers had only 31 during the regular season, which ranked tied for 20th. DeMarcus Ware, the NFL's leader in sacks with 15.5 last season, had one-half sack in four preseason games.

2. Running back ball security. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams both lost the football after being ruled down in the Cardinals' preseason opener. Fumbling has been a touchy subject in Arizona over the last couple of seasons. Tim Hightower, since traded, fumbled 10 times over the last two seasons, tied with Ahmad Bradshaw for most in the league. Wells fumbled five times during that span, tied for eighth-most among players with fewer than 300 rushing attempts since 2009 (fumble totals count those on receptions). This is a subject the Cardinals do not need to revisit anytime soon.

3. Kevin Kolb affirmations. The Cardinals' new quarterback has been "solid" and even a "godsend" for Arizona during his first two weeks practicing with the team. Anything less than a stellar performance from Kolb against Green Bay will be ... well, pretty much irrelevant, this being preseason. Once again, let's watch to see how well the Cardinals protect him. That matters most at this point. The Packers sacked Kurt Warner twice, forcing fumbles both times, during a 2009 preseason game between the teams. They knocked out Kolb with a concussion during the 2010 regular-season opener.

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