TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s easy to wrap your arms around LaRod Stephens-Howling.
He’s only 5-feet-7, he was a late, seventh-round pick out of Pittsburgh in 2009 (240th overall), and he has perhaps the most appropriate and affection-inspiring nickname in the NFL: The Hyphen.
“I know the fans really appreciate what I do,” Stephens-Howling said. “I was the underdog, and I guess people wrap themselves around the underdog. I came in here and just did everything I was asked to do.”
On Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, that meant being the feature back with the club’s top two backs on the depth chart, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, still out with injuries.
Stephens-Howling responded in a big way, rushing for a career-high 104 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in a 21-14 loss. He also caught four passes for 45 yards.
“He was a warrior,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “He was tough. He ran the ball well. At this point, if it requires him to carry the ball that many times a game, then that’s what we have to go with.”
But there is a big qualifier embedded in Whisenhunt’s statement – one Stephens-Howling has heard for the past four seasons.
“Going forward, we’ve got to rotate those guys,” Whisenhunt said, mentioning William Powell and even Alfonso Smith as the Cardinals prepare for Monday night’s home game against San Francisco. “I don’t think we’re going into a game thinking LaRod is going to get all the carries.”
There is a practical reality behind Whisenhunt’s statement. Stephens-Howling has special-teams duties, including kick returns, that the Cardinals would like him to resume once Wells returns to the lineup — possibly late next month. But there’s also Stephens-Howling’s size to factor in when subjecting him to a weekly pounding.
Think of him as a Toyota Prius on the road with a bunch of SUVs. No matter how tough that Prius is, and no matter how good its safety features are, it’s still going to lose in repeated battles with the bigger SUVs. As every highway safety test will tell you, weight matters.
“I’m so tired of that assumption,” Stephens-Howling said. “I have to hear it every time. I just want to be a running back. I don’t know what else to say about that.”
Stephens-Howling has done his best to alter that perception. He put on weight in the offseason and has nearly bulked back up to that training camp weight of 185 pounds despite the rigors of the season.
When he weighed in last Friday, he said he weighed 184 – and he insists he wasn’t wearing heavy chains.
“My girlfriend’s cooking at home,” he said. “It’s good weight. Desserts every once in a while, but you always need those to keep you going.”
That dogged effort and, yes, his size, make Stephens-Howling a favorite in the locker room.
“Whenever he’s needed, he always answers the call and executes the way he needs to when you’re the starting running back,” fullback Anthony Sherman said. “He’s smaller than everyone else, but he’s got one of the biggest hearts on the field.”
Stephens-Howling said he felt great after the Vikings game.
“I feel a little beat up, but that’s how you want to feel after a game because you feel like you’ve been in the game,” he said. “I felt like that when we played Seattle the last game of (last) season and I had a bunch of carries.”
Small evidence notwithstanding, Stephens-Howling probably will never escape the educated belief that he can’t be an every-down back. But it’s hard to begrudge the pint-sized, seventh-round pick for continuing to fight that perception.
“Maybe one day I’ll be able to escape it,” he said.