Cardinals need to find red zone rushing threat

TEMPE, Ariz. -- At first, it doesn't seem as if it could be right.

Sitting at No. 32 in the NFL in red zone rushing? The Arizona Cardinals. The same 11-win Cardinals who lost to the Carolina Panthers in an NFC wild-card game. The three teams above Arizona combined for eight wins total last season -- the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Why would a team that owned the best record in the NFL for more than half the season be ranked behind teams that have become bottom-feeders the past few years? It's a question with an easy answer. It's also a dilemma for a franchise with late-January aspirations that needs to be resolved in the next couple of months.

The answer: When Jonathan Dwyer was arrested after Week 2 and subsequently placed on the NFL's non-football injury list, the void his 5-foot-11, 229-pound frame left in the offense was deep. For the next 14 games, the Cardinals shuffled the backfield, searching for a big-bodied back who could get those tough yards on third- and fourth-and-short. They tried Jalen Parmele immediately, then signed Marion Grice less than a week later and then took a chance in November on veteran Michael Bush, who was inactive for one game before being released.

As hard as they tried, the Cardinals couldn't find the right fit. It began to cost them because Andre Ellington was playing through a split tendon in his left foot.

"It was just one of those freaky foot things," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "He was fairly fortunate. It's usually a Lisfranc injury [that] would've occurred for him, but instead of cracking the bone, he split the tendon and really gutted it up for us for about 10 weeks as long as he could."

The Cardinals finished the year as the worst running team inside the 20-yard line, totaling 57 yards on 39 carries in the red zone, an average of 1.46 yards per attempt. Only two teams had fewer than their six touchdowns in the red zone. Their longest run inside the 20 was 6 yards -- they were the only team whose longest run in that situation was shorter than 10 yards.

They ran for just nine first downs in the red zone, the second fewest in the NFL. Arizona's 8 rushing yards before contact were the fewest by 40 yards. The Cards had 49 yards after contact, among the bottom five in the league, and their average of .21 yards after contact per run was the lowest in the NFL.

Not having a healthy Ellington was a major factor, but not having Dwyer, or someone of his size who could get yards deep in a defense's territory, is another reason Arizona couldn't secure the top seed in the NFC.

And that's where the Cardinals need to get help, whether it's in free agency or through the draft.

"I know over the years we've talked about devaluing running backs and at the end of the day, a lot of teams are having to play with multiple numbers," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "You have to have a few guys that can carry the load. Very rarely do you have the one bell cow anymore.

"But this year, I think a couple of those running backs at the top have the chance to be special."

Whoever the Cardinals sign, whether it's in free agency next month or the draft in late April/early May, will come to Arizona in a supporting role to Ellington, not as the featured act.

"His role, hopefully, will expand," Arians said of Ellington. "We weren't able to do all the things we practiced because he couldn't practice on Wednesdays or Thursdays and he'd limp around on Friday.

"Other than that, we think he's a great player. He's still the focal point of our offense and we'll try to continue to build around him."

The free-agency crop at running back this offseason includes DeMarco Murray and Frank Gore, and it seemingly grows by the day -- the Lions' Reggie Bush, the New York Giants' Peyton Hillis and the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams were all released this week.

The top two draft options will be Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. Both are 6-foot-1. Gurley weighs 222, and Gordon 215. Both are considered feature backs, and both could certainly go in the first round.

Either could fit Arizona's needs.

"If you have a guy, he's your horse, and there's some really good ones the last couple of years," Arians said. "You ride him. You got to be careful with the number of touches as you get into December and January, then you also have teams who have multiple players who can be successful in roles.

"So, it's finding their roles and putting them in the right slots."