Andre Roberts tries to return a punt Sunday inside his own 10-yard line.
In the corner of the locker room, Andre Roberts sat on his stool, answering questions for the stray media member that walked over.
The rookie wide receiver and punt returner knew the questions weren't going to be fun, not after the issues he had on punts Sunday. He fielded one punt inside his own 5-yard line – a definite no-no – and had two others hit the ground before he could field them, only to see them bounce and hit a teammate, leading to turnovers.
It was Roberts' first extended regular-season work. His first extended work, period, after a shoulder injury killed off much of his chance to play in the preseason. Roberts needed those games too, to get used to the game, and to put aside an inconsistent training camp.
"So far," Roberts said with a weary smile, "it's been a little tough for me."
Roberts is a good kid, from parents who are retired Army. He played well in college at The Citadel as both pass catcher and punt returner, and did well against big-school opponents like Clemson and North Carolina. The transition was supposed to be easier.
"I felt like I would have more of an impact on the team, but I will learn from experience," Roberts said. "It will come."
But Roberts isn't unrealistic. "You can't keep making mistakes or you'll lose your job. That's just the business."
So the Cardinals walk a fine line. Coach Ken Whisenhunt emphasized he isn't down on Roberts, and special teams coach Kevin Spencer said Whisenhunt is often reminding the staff patience is needed with young players.
"There are many kids in this program that we thought were washes after their first year who I think have shown us they are pretty good football players," Spencer said.
Still, given the issues Sunday, Spencer said had the Raiders been forced to punt again, Steve Breaston would have been sent in. The beat-up veteran – who had knee surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus – could at least fair catch and secure the ball, as he had done the previous week in Atlanta.
Roberts' absence in the preseason hurt, Spencer said. That's the time when he would have been catching punts with opponents buzzing around him waiting to pounce, unlike practice. Experience means everything.
Protective of his players, Spencer isn't thrilled with the avalanche of criticism on Roberts. The rookie made two big mistakes – the fielding of the one punt inside the 10, and the second ball that hit the ground and then Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The first ball that hit came up short and was an unlucky bounce as it hit Matt Ware – not much Roberts could do on it, Spencer said (although Roberts took responsibility for all three plays).
Roberts needs to learn from it however, because "unfortunately, there are no four-year scholarships," Spencer said.
"Education on the job means possible losing games," Spencer added. "We can't have the ball on the ground. We can be patient to a point."
The patience may have to extend further, too – into the locker room. Special-teams captain Jason Wright said there were "more than a few guys" who chewed Roberts out during the game because of his mistakes. Those emotions are natural on game day, Wright said, but Roberts needs encouragement.
"The situation for Andre is difficult because this team is built to win now," Wright said. "If he was on a perpetually rebuilding team, which I have been a part of, there would be more grace. We wouldn't be talking about this. We'd be talking about how great his last week of practice was – and it was, the best week of practice on offense since he has been here and we saw why they drafted him – and we'd be building him up.
"But because this team is built to win now, the conversation is different."
Wright is confident Roberts will be the player the Cards hoped he'd be. Now that Breaston is out for the short term, the Cards need him to be that player too, both returning punts and catching passes.
"With any rookie, there will be mistakes," Roberts said. "You have to stay mentally strong."
In games where running back Beanie Wells has carried the ball at least 10 times, his career per-carry average is 4.9 yards.
Larry Fitzgerald came off the bench for the first time in his career against Oakland. A starter in the first 94 games of his career, Fitz technically was second unit as the Cards opened up with an alignment with just one wide receiver (Breaston).
The Cardinals are now 21-1 in games they lead after three quarters under Whisenhunt.
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