Tenacity, smarts define Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley

Jul 31, 2016, 11:45 AM | Updated: 1:04 pm

(Photo by: Adam Green)...

(Photo by: Adam Green)

(Photo by: Adam Green)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley heard something on Friday that he’s never heard in his eight-year NFL career. Coach Bruce Arians proclaimed the starting role, “A.Q.’s job to lose.”

“It’s almost harder in this position, because now you know what they expect from you,” Shipley said, smiling. “I’ve always had to battle. I’ve always kind of been the underdog, but I like the pressure on me moving forward.”

Shipley’s NFL career has been a Homeric Odyssey of perseverance. Following his senior season at Penn State, he was a consensus first team All-Big Ten selection, the conference’s offensive lineman of the year, an All-American and he won the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the best center in college football.

“I had as decorated a college career as you can probably have,” he said.

He also did everything he could to impress teams at the NFL Scouting Combine. He bench-pressed 33 reps of 225 pounds (fifth best among offensive linemen) and posted a 31-inch vertical jump (eighth). He ran a 7.46 in the 3-cone drill and a 4.40 in the 20-yard shuttle (second and fifth, respectively), and he scored a 40 on the Wonderlic Test, which was double the average score for NFL draft prospects.

Despite those accolades, Shipley didn’t hear his name called until the seventh and final round of the 2009 NFL Draft when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him with the 226th pick. He signed a three-year deal with the Steelers in June of 2009, but he was waived three months later and spent the next two seasons on the Steelers’ and Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squads.

“I kept thinking, ‘man, what am I doing wrong here?'” he said.

In the eight years since he was drafted, Shipley, 30, has been released five times, played for five different NFL teams and played center, left guard and fullback. The book on Shipley is that, at 6-foot-1, he lacks the height and his arms are too short to maintain contact with tackles on the move, which lets his man shed or get past him.

“I’ve dealt with that [criticism] for a long time,” he explained. “I haven’t grown much since I was 18. I’ve played against the best in college and I’ve played against the best in the pros. It’s really never hindered me, or been a huge deterrent to what I can do.”

Arians has always professed a fondness for players in Shipley’s plight.

“It’s not a soft spot, it’s a level of respect,” Arians said. “I respect those guys that overcome some limitations with smarts and toughness.”

Shipley won Arians’ heart in Indianapolis in 2012, Shipley’s first NFL season on an active roster.

“I go all the way back to [the] Detroit [game],” Arians said. “Our right guard got hurt, he goes in and he blocks Ndamukong Suh for a quarter and a half and we win the game and all we’re doing is throwing the ball.”

Arians noted that Shipley played the entire game at center for the Cardinals last season against Philadelphia, with starter Lyle Sendlein injured. The Cardinals ran for a season-high 230 yards and three touchdowns on 39 rushes.

“Everybody says he can’t do it, but I’ve been watching him overachieve for a long time,” Arians added. “When you’re smart and tough, you’ve got half the battle won in this league. He’s been in this system a long time. He’s not going to make a wrong call or re-identify a front the wrong way for [QB] Carson [Palmer]. I’m very comfortable with him handling everything.”

Shipley had other offers in the summer of 2015, but he signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals based on his relationship with Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who was with Arians in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

Initially, Shipley thought he might be the starter last season, but the Cardinals re-signed Sendlein on a reduced salary after releasing him, so Shipley had to wait another year.

“Was I disappointed when it happened? Absolutely,” Shipley said. “Any competitor would be, but it wasn’t a big blow to my confidence, and at the end of the day, Lyle and I became the best of friends. I learned a lot from him.”

Shipley knows he still has to beat out Earl Watford, who has impressed Arians in his limited snaps at the position. He also knows the Cardinals drafted rookie Evan Boehm out of Missouri to be their center of the future.

“I’m not going to shun the kid,” he said. “I’m going to bring him along just as I was brought along.”

All the same, Shipley believes his diversity of experiences and positions have given him a better understanding of the game and his place in it. He is also grateful for the opportunity Arians has laid before him.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s good that they have that faith in me. You play the game to show the coaches and prove to the coaches that you deserve an opportunity to play.”

Shipley added that if he does earn the starting role, he’d bring a “junkyard dog” approach to the job and a lighthearted approach to the huddle and locker room — one that once led him to dress up as Santa Claus for a Penn State holiday party.

“You always have to be a little bit of a different guy off the field or you’ll wind up in jail,” he said, laughing “We had a lot of fun in college being idiots, and I still like to have fun.”

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