Tim Hightower may have lost more than just possession of the ball with his latest fumble. He may have lost the seemingly infinite faith that Ken Whisenhunt has shown him and maybe even his starting job. With the offense struggling mightily to produce, Hightower’s stock must have plummeted as his turnover cost the Cardinals dearly in their loss to Seattle.
Darren Urban commented on Tim Hightower’s status immediately after the loss to the Seahawks, a game in which Hightower fumbled on Seattle’s 28 yard line while the Cardinals were swinging the momentum back in their favor. Urban explained that “the fumble cost Tim Hightower playing time [in the Seattle game]. But not only did Whisenhunt say it was too early to talk about whether Hightower’s playing time would be cut going forward (or even possibly losing his starting job) because he had yet to watch the tape with the team, it was too early to even comment on the entire situation for now.” Hightower’s fumbling is nothing new and Whisenhunt knows it.
Whisenhunt’s reluctance to pull the plug on Hightower likely stems from the fact that when Tim is able to hang onto the ball he produces. Hightower has gained 298 yards on 52 carries for a 5.73 average so far this year. He’s also a viable receiving target and is much further along as a blocker than Beanie Wells, an important skill which Wells has been drastically slow in developing.
Hightower, unfortunately, leads the NFL in fumbles for a second consecutive year with three in only six games. Although Tim shares the lead with five other running backs, Hightower has fewer attempts than all of those other running backs. In fact, no one is even close except for Chris Ivory of the Saints, a rookie, who has three fumbles on 59 carries. The other four backs (Cedric Benson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Frank Gore, Peyton Hillis) with three fumbles each have more than 100 carries.
Whisenhunt has always stuck by his policy that the player that gives the team the best opportunity to win is the player that will make it onto the field. Knowing that, it’s difficult to believe that Whiz has a particularly affinity to Hightower. That being the case, perhaps it’s time to start looking at other options because as Whisenhunt put it, “We can’t live with [Hightower’s fumbles] going forward.”
If the Cardinals decide to move away from Hightower, they would have to come up with a new mix in the backfield. Beanie Wells and Hightower could simply swap places, giving Wells the majority of the carries and Hightower would take a more limited role in the offense. It’s questionable, however, whether limiting Hightower’s touches would really solve his fumbling issues because it only takes one touch to turn the ball over. I don’t think any coach has the prescience to say “it’s okay, he won’t fumble on this carry.” Installing Wells as the feature back, however, doesn’t seem to be a likely option because Whisenhunt has already expressed that he doesn’t believe Wells is quite ready for that yet. It’s for precisely that reason Hightower is starting in the first place. A compliment to Wells is needed.
Enter LaRod Stephens-Howling. There is no doubt that Hyphen is a weapon as a kick-off returner. He’s speedy, smart, has great hands and obviously terrific vision. Sounds like a skill set that would translate well to the offense. In limited action as a back, Hypen gained 53 yards on 9 carries for a 5.9 average this season. He’s clearly undersized at 5?7?, 185 pounds, but he could at least split carries with Wells and be an effective third down option, a role that Hyphen already fills to a small extent. Stephens-Howling is an equally adept receiver and he has a lot of heart, which makes up for some of his undersized frame.
Cutting Hightower out completely seems a little drastic, though. It doesn’t appear likely that Whisenhunt would demote Hightower from starter to bench warmer in a week. A mix, therefore, of Wells, Stephens-Howling, and Hightower could be possible, with Wells getting the majority of the touches on first and second down with Stephens-Howling and Hightower getting the snaps on third and mid/long situations.
There’s no doubt that the optimal situation would be for Hightower to somehow fix his fumbling issues, but there just doesn’t appear to be any reason to believe he will. He struggled with it all last year and it has continued this season. Hightower refuses to put two hands on the ball even when heading into traffic and fighting for extra yards. When there are bodies, arms, and hands flying everywhere, carrying the ball high and tight doesn’t matter. You must put two hands on the ball and cover it up. Hightower just doesn’t do it and it appears he never will. With all the offensive struggles the Cardinals are currently facing there is no way they can survive with Hightower turning the ball over on a regular basis.