The move from Edgerrin James to Tim Hightower is another sign that Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't hesitate to put who he feels are his best players in the lineup, regardless of how much they make or how big their "name" is. In this case, it pushes a player signed by the previous staff and with two years and $10 million left on his contract to the bench.
What makes the move interesting is there's no real evidence that Hightower's a better back than James. If you take a look at the performance of James over the past two years and compare it to Hightower's performance in 2008, there's only one obvious difference between the two.
They have relatively similar DVOA ratings. Their success rates (a metric tracking what percentage of the time a back gets 45 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down or 100 percent on third or fourth down) are remarkably similar. Their raw numbers on a per-carry basis are pretty similar except for one aspect: Hightower scores a touchdown once every 10 carries, while James scores a touchdown about once every 43 carries.
What accounts for Hightower's advantage in touchdowns? It's not the number of times Hightower has received the ball, but instead, where he's gotten his carries. Hightower has seven carries from the 1-yard line and three more from the 2, and despite talk that he has the vaunted "nose for the end zone," he has only punched it in on four of those 10 carries. A league-average back would be expected to score 5.13 touchdowns on those 10 attempts, meaning that Hightower's "nose" is really just opportunity.
Meanwhile, James has been very successful when given the ball in those situations. He has scored touchdowns on his only runs from the 1 and the 2 and is 1-for-2 from the 4. That reverses a career-long trend in which James was famously unable to get the ball into the end zone. Among running backs with 50 or more attempts inside the 5-yard line since 1995, James' 32.4 percent conversion rate is the fifth-worst in the NFL.
One of the reasons for James' benching is that he's a poor fit for the scheme the Cardinals are now running, which revolves around Kurt Warner and the passing game. It seems strange to think that James, who spent most of his career playing with the Colts and Peyton Manning, wouldn't be a good fit in a passing attack. So far, though, the receiving statistics say that Hightower's been a superior receiver.
Hightower's undoubtedly the quicker back at this point, and he's certainly better at making people miss on swing passes and, when the Cardinals so desire, splitting out wide and running simple downfield patterns in four- or five-wide sets. On the other hand, James is one of the better blocking backs in football, certainly superior to Hightower. Last year, our data only charged James with a single blown block leading to a sack, an impressive number considering the number of snaps he was on the field for. In 2008, while the blocking data for Weeks 1-8 aren't yet fully compiled, James was charged with a blown block in Week 2 against the Dolphins. Hightower does not have a blown block as of yet.
While it seems likely the Cardinals will waive James after the season, it seems obvious that the best fit for the team isn't a situation where, as in Week 9, Hightower gets all the carries and James sits on the bench. Hightower has the strength to be a good red zone back and interior runner, places where James struggles. Both he and current backup J.J. Arrington are more explosive than James, who's the best pass-blocker of the three. Using Hightower in the team's conventional sets and employing a mix of James and Arrington in the four-wide set and in other obvious passing situations would allow the Cardinals to use their players' skill sets as optimally as possible without disrupting their excellent passing attack. Leaving James on the bench to prove a point may win Whisenhunt some points, but leave him without the services of a player who could still be valuable to his team down the stretch and -- most importantly for a team with a 10-year drought -- into the playoffs.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com