Up next: Cards have 3-game lead at midseason

The Cardinals lead the NFC West by three games at the season's midway point, and they appear to be improving, at least offensively. For evidence, look at the season-opening victory against the 49ers compared to last week's win at St. Louis.

In the opening game, running back J.J. Arrington was inactive. Receiver Steve Breaston was unproven, and rookie running back Tim Hightower was just a bit player.

Today, Arrington is a valuable cog in the team's third-down packages and spread formations. Breaston has been dynamic and filled in nicely when Anquan Boldin missed two games. And Hightower is now starting, gaining 109 yards on 22 carries in his debut in that role last week.

The Cardinals lead the league in scoring, have avoided major injuries and seem to be adding to their offensive arsenal almost weekly.

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The decision to bench running back Edgerrin James in favor of Hightower was weeks in coming and signals a significant shift in coach Ken Whisenhunt's tenure with the team.

In his two seasons, Whisenhunt has preached that the best players will play, but benching James for Hightower is a change that took a considerable amount of thought.

James had started every one of the 135 NFL games in which he has played. He has Hall of Fame credentials, and his signing with the club in 2006 was greeted with much fanfare and celebration.

But James has never been a great fit for this offense. Whisenhunt and his staff still think James has great value. His vision and agility are his greatest assets and he rarely loses yards. However, he doesn't break many runs, and coaches want a back who can create some big plays.

That's not James, who has only four runs of 20 yards or more in his time in Arizona, despite carrying 769 times.

Hightower is hardly a speed merchant, either, but he's an explosive, one-cut runner who has shown the ability to hit the ball hard up the middle and the speed to get outside.

He displayed that in last Sunday's victory over the Rams, gaining 109 yards on 22 carries, including a 30-yard touchdown run. It was the team's longest touchdown run in more than three years and the longest scoring run since 2002.

James' role in the offense had diminished in recent weeks as the Cardinals increasingly turned to their passing game, often going to formations with four and five receivers.

Hightower played more on third down, as did J.J. Arrington, who plays the single back in the four-receiver formation.

James hasn't hid his unhappiness with his changing role, although it's not as if he called press conferences to announce it. He simply answered questions about he was dealing with the change.

Whisenhunt said he didn't enter the game with the idea of keeping James on the bench but that circumstances dictated. Afterward, James was asked if he thought his benching was a response to his speaking out.

"Man, it's been brewing for a while," he said. "I'm supportive of Tim and happy for him.

"I don't fit the 'yes man' mold," he said, "so it's going to always come down on me. I'm not going to be a yes man. They can sit me down for the rest of the year, it don't matter. I'll come out, go to work."

James has no intention of retiring but he knows this likely is his last year in Arizona. He is due to make $5 million salary this year, and the club isn't going to keep someone making that salary as a backup.

James' tenure in Arizona hasn't brought the franchise success, but that's not his fault. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards for two consecutive years, the first Cardinal to do that since Ottis Anderson in 1983-84.

But James has had to work like never before to reach those numbers. In his first season, under Dennis Green, the Cardinals offense was always in transition, with players in and out of the lineup and offensive coordinators in and out of jobs.

Whisenhunt and his staff arrived in Arizona a year after James. While still placing a high value on James' skill, coaches wanted a breakaway threat at running back. James has had a difficult time breaking tackles on the second level, tackles that coaches hope Hightower can evade.

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he Cardinals are 5-3 at the midway point in the season. It's their first winning record after eight games since the 1984 season.

The Cardinals have won four of their last nine games by at least 20 points. From 1986 through 2006, the Cardinals won only six games by a margin of 20 or more points.

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Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was called for a personal foul for slamming down receiver Torry Holt out of bounds last week.

Holt scored a TD against the rookie a few plays later. "He patted me on my head and said, 'Rook, keep working: everything will come together,'" Rodgers-Cromartie said.

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Offensive coordinator Todd Haley thinks his group of players is much tougher than it was a year ago.

"We've shown we can overcome bad plays. We can overcome a three-and-out. We didn't feel like that last year. You felt like you had to convert every third down. The margin of error was so much smaller. Now, you don't have to panic and you can overcome some bad plays."

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