DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals offensive line shoulders one of NFL’s heaviest workloads

Aug 3, 2018, 7:28 PM | Updated: 8:07 pm
Arizona Cardinals offensive linemen Justin Pugh (67) and Andre Smith (71) walk on the Tempe practic...
Arizona Cardinals offensive linemen Justin Pugh (67) and Andre Smith (71) walk on the Tempe practice facility field on Tuesday, June 5, 2018 (Logan Newman/Arizona Sports).
(Logan Newman/Arizona Sports)

Offensive linemen are different animals. They come in all shapes and sizes. But they all talk the same game.

They claim they’ve reconciled the anonymity and glory they’ll never find. They find solace in the intangibles, playing for battle, blood and brotherhood. And they all say they love running the football.

Many of them are lying, incapable of the internal stew required to push around another man for 60 minutes.

The 2018 Cardinals must be the exception.

Our latest collection of noble grunts is more than a pivotal storyline entering a new season. They shoulder one of the heaviest workloads in the NFL. They must protect Sam Bradford and his wonky knee, a quarterback whose health is taken for granted. We expect him to get hurt.

They are at the center of a philosophical shift, a team transitioning into a run-first operation, reflecting a massive shift in mindset. They must create lanes and space for David Johnson even when the opponent knows what’s coming. They must open doors for Chase Edmonds and T.J. Logan. They must win the weekly war of will power, pummeling away at opposing morale.

They are also the life preservers for a franchise attempting to hide a glaring weakness.

For all the new hope, the Cardinals are conspicuously thin at wide receiver. Their best will be fitted for a Hall of Fame jacket in the near future. The rest are swimming in the shallow end of the talent pool, ranked 31st in the league by Pro Football Focus.

But a great running team solves many problems. It distracts defensive backs, drawing them to the center of the field, suddenly filling holes and providing emergency reinforcement. On paper, a transcendent offensive line makes it very easy for a roomful of mediocre receivers to get open and make plays.

The reality is much different. One weak link or one weak mind, and the plan falls apart.

“It’s five guys doing one job,” Cardinals lineman Evan Boehm said. “On a football field, we’re the only unit that does that. The offensive line is the only position in football were we say ‘We’ as a unit.”

The Cardinals are attempting to breed a new mentality with padded practices and a highly-physical training camp. The other day, head coach Steve Wilks interrupted the routine, abruptly calling for his offensive and defensive starters to engage in a heated goal-line drill. It was a surprise pitch designed to simulate the sudden change that defines every Sunday in the NFL. If Wilks can’t groom a different type of offensive lineman, he’s going to find out fast who has the taste for this level of combat.

The Cardinals have another advantage. Their revamped offensive line is full of ebullient personalities. Justin Pugh and D.J. Humphries can fill a reporter’s notebook. Center A.Q. Shipley has made a living from the chip on his shoulder, undaunted by third-round pick Mason Cole, who started 51 consecutive games at Michigan, earning rave reviews from the new boss.

NFL history proves that many iconic offensive lines were full of extroverts and mega-watt personalities, men who engage on and off the field. Their ebullience was proof that they loved their jobs. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so happy.

Fair or not, that never seemed to be the case with Levi Brown or Jonathan Cooper. And when Jared Veldeer suddenly left camp in 2017 to ponder retirement, you can only guess what his half-hearted commitment did to the collective mentality and swagger of the offensive line.

The 2018 Cardinals are also blessed with great leadership. Offensive line coach Ray Brown is a serious upgrade from the previous staff, a man who played 20 years in the NFL, won a Super Bowl and started a playoff game at age 43. Ever since, he has quietly forged a reputation as one of the best position coaches in the NFL.

“Coach Wilks has brought in a great coaching staff,” Boehm said. “Ray Brown and (assistant) Steve Heiden, the two guys in the offensive line room, they make it fun. We’re actually having fun playing football and that’s what a lot of people are going to see this year.

“I told him during a walk-through that my dad was my head football coach in high school. My mom grew up around football, and I played one side of the ball while my little brother was an outside linebacker. He was out there shedding blocks and making tackles, and my mom finally told me, ‘It’s more fun watching him play than you.’ I told her that’s because he’s doing the fun things and I’m doing the dirty stuff. You have to love what you do to be an offensive lineman.”

It’s easy to get fooled in August, but the new group seems to possess that kind of hardcore passion. You hear real conviction when they say they want to run the football. They want to carry the heavy end of the piano, embracing the enormous challenge ahead. Unlike the hulking men who fit the mold and love the paychecks but shiver at the true nature of their profession, and the pain involved.

It’s true. Offensive linemen have hard jobs. Those who will play for the Cardinals in 2018 have it worse. The best wouldn’t have it any other way.

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