In his second NFL season, center Lyle Sendlein started all 20 regular- and post-season games for the Cardinals (Getty photo).
Lyle Sendlein saw in the playoffs how much of the learning curve remained.
The Cardinals were faced with defenses in the postseason the other teams hadn't used all season and therefore, never put on tape to study. It made it hard for every offensive lineman, but more so for Sendlein the center, the man in charge of organizing the unit when in many ways he was still organizing his own place in the sport.
"Mentally," Sendlein said, "there is still stuff out there I don't know."
Questions have followed Sendlein from the start, whether it was his undrafted status in 2007, his role as rookie backup for veteran Al Johnson, his quick insertion as the starter in 2008 when Johnson's bad knee wrecked Johnson's Arizona tenure, or even in the draft when some thought the Cards could take a center with their first-round pick.
One person that has never seemed to question Sendlein, however, is Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt has consistently said Sendlein has the ability to become a good NFL center, and has backed that faith with roster decisions.
Sendlein's backup last season, after it was decided Johnson would be released, was the inexperienced Pat Ross. The backup centers right now? Donovan Raiola and Ben Claxton, who have combined to appear in two NFL games.
"Lyle's got 20 games under his belt without missing time, so toughness, competitiveness, especially with what he went through last year getting nicked up, you gain a lot of respect for that," said Whisenhunt, who also praised Sendlein's intelligence. "I think as a young guy in this league, coming from where he did and being thrust into starting in his second year, it is tough.
"He has come a long way, but we have aspirations of him becoming a very good center. The one thing I have seen is improvement. If that trend continues we will have a very good football player."
In a recent New York Times blog item, "football scientist" K.C. Joyner graded out the run blocking of the Cardinals' offensive line, giving Sendlein the lowest grade of the five starters. The piece was meant to show the unit was perhaps underrated, but it indirectly knocked Sendlein.
What the stats can't take into account was that Sendlein, in addition to his learning on the job, acknowledged he "tore up my (left) shoulder" against the Jets in Week Four and played through the problem. Surgery corrected the issue after the Super Bowl and Sendlein said he is stronger than he was before.
Sendlein matter-of-factly added the injury is just part of football and shouldn't be factored into his play. Besides, "if Levi (Brown) and Deuce (Lutui) and all those guys are out there, I need to be out there. I hate missing practice."
On the mental side, quarterback Kurt Warner has been encouraged by Sendlein's growth over his two seasons. Sendlein and Warner talk often and Warner said he likes how Sendlein is willing to listen.
"Center is a lot like a quarterback, so much of it is being comfortable with what you are seeing and making the calls," Warner said. "It is hard to play your position because you aren't just waiting for someone to say something and reacting, you've got to see things, you've got to watch for adjustments and then make the calls, and then you've got to go out and do it.
"There are certain positions on the field that are harder to make the transition than others and I think center is one of them. That's Lyle. It's just now becoming second nature. … That's something he has been fighting the last couple of years, so that stuff becomes second nature and the physical gifts take over."
Sendlein wants to improve, wants to silence the naysayers. He is always asking anyone who can help him for help. His father Robin was a NFL linebacker for eight seasons, and Sendlein gets advice from Dad whether he is tipping plays or weak on a technique.
"A lot of guys wouldn't want the responsibility of making the calls but I thrive off of knowing what we need to do and what the defense is trying to do," Sendlein said. "That has to do with my love for football. I think it's the best game there is and I want to be good at it."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 6/2/09.