2011 was bittersweet for Wells

2011-12-30T05:00:00Z 2011 was bittersweet for WellsKENT SOMERS The Arizona Republic Arizona Daily Sun
December 30, 2011 5:00 am  • 

Beanie Wells appreciates the good things that came in this football season. The Cardinals' running back has missed only one game and rushed for 1,000 yards for the first time in his three-year career.

But Wells will look back at 2011 season with frustration, too. An injury to his right knee suffered against the Steelers in Week 6 diminished his strength and explosiveness.

Wells persevered, helping to dispel the notion that he's soft, but he can't help but think about what could have been.

"I missed a few runs and had I been a little bit healthier, I would have been out there full time," Wells said. "But one day, I tell you one day, I'm going to be healthy and I'm going to unleash hell on this league."

Since the team moved to Arizona in 1988, the Cardinals' running game has rarely unleashed anything other than frustration. In 24 seasons, the Cardinals have had just six 1,000-yard rushers.

So Wells reaching that mark produced a sense of accomplishment but no celebration. The Cardinals have averaged 99.6 rushing yards per game, the most in coach Ken Whisenhunt's five seasons, but that ranks 25th in a 32-team league.

Asked whether the running game had made progress or produced frustration, Whisenhunt quipped, "Would it be fair to say you could have both?"

Whisenhunt credited Wells for playing through injury and said gaining 1,000 yards is a significant accomplishment for a running back and his blockers.

But ...

"It's frustrating because we haven't been 100 percent healthy there, and there have been opportunities to be more consistent," he said. "We haven't been able to act on those."

The Cardinals gambled in training camp by trading running back Tim Hightower to the Redskins. Then rookie Ryan Williams, a second-round choice, went down with a knee injury in a preseason game, leaving Wells to carry the load.

And he did it well for a while, gaining 381 yards and averaging 4.82 yards a carry until he suffered the knee injury.

Wells' season has been up and down since. The Cardinals won't say what is wrong with Wells' knee, but it's worse in some weeks than others. He set a franchise record by rushing for 228 yards against the Rams on Nov. 27, but he's gained 198 yards in the four games since.

Overall, Wells has gained 1,047 yards on 245 carries (a 4.3-yard average) and scored 10 touchdowns.

What's missing, Whisenhunt said, is the ability to make defenders miss. Wells can't cut as sharply as before, and he's being tackled in the secondary more often than he would if he were healthy.

Opportunity has something to do with Wells' declining numbers, too. He hasn't had more than 15 carries in any of the past three games.

"We can take both good and bad from it," guard Rex Hadnot said of the running attack. "The frustrating part of it is that up front we have the confidence that nobody can really just prevent us from running the ball. It has been either missed assignments from us up front or whomever on the offensive side of the ball."

"There are lot of positives to draw from it, and it's important we build on it and not take steps back."

If the off-season goes according to plan, the running game will take on a different look in 2012. Wells likely will have off-season surgery that will fix whatever is wrong with his right knee.

Williams is expected back, and while he has never played in an NFL game, he did enough in training camp to excite coaches.

"I don't think any of us are under the illusion that having Ryan Williams wouldn't have helped us," Whisenhunt said. "It's pretty evident he's a talented young player. But you don't look back and say you wish or you could have, because that's the NFL."

Whisenhunt is a believer in using several backs, so unlike this season, the workload in 2012 could be distributed to more than one back.

Not that Wells is ready to give up carries.

"Even though it could have been better in my eyes, I think I definitely solidified myself as the No. 1 back here, or wherever the case may be."

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