- Nov 3, 2003
Head Coach Denny’s Green decision to release Pete Kendall and name rookie Alex Stepanovich as the team’s starting center came as a surprise to most, but Green has said all along that he believes in opportunity.
In Minnesota, Green groomed sixth-round draft pick Matt Birk into a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the top centers in the NFL.
Green has paved the way for Stepanovich to walk in Birk’s footsteps, but the transition for the fourth-round pick from rookie to starting center will not be easy. Stepanovich was already at a disadvantage for most rookies because he missed most of the off-season workouts to finish out his school year at Ohio State.
The news came as a surprise to most of the offense, but players are putting faith in their Coach’s decision.
“It was surprising but it is part of the business,” said starting QB Josh McCown. “We have to roll with it. Right now, my focus is getting with Alex and getting it going and seeing how he sees protections so we can get on the same page and be a productive offense.”
“I’m quite sure they feel comfortable with his abilities to play center, and shoot, I’ve got to get used to his name,” joked veteran running back Emmitt Smith. “I was too busy trying to run past everybody so I really didn’t get a chance to look at him though. We’ll see how he did when we watch tape this afternoon and tonight.”
For his part, Stepanovich seemed to react well to being thrown into the mix of things in Monday’s morning practice.
“The best way is to be thrown straight into the fire,” shared Stepanovich. “To me, it is more fun that. You are going to make mistakes but I love to play football and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines, so I am having a lot of fun right now. I found out this is my new task so I am just trying work as hard as I can and do the best job I can for the Cardinals.”
The first day of practice was certainly not flawless as a few exchanges between Stepanovich and McCown fell to the ground.
“We are having a few problems with the timing on the snaps but that is just natural with a new guy,” said McCown. “We’ll get it corrected.”
The move marks yet another change to the Cardinals offensive line. The team has already shifted Leonard Davis from right guard to left tackle, benching LJ Shelton, and moving second-year Reggie Wells to starting right guard.
Despite all the moves, Davis feels the line has plenty of time to get things ironed out.
“We have a whole month to really gel and for most of us, we’ve played these positions before so it is not anything that is totally new for us,” said Davis. “It is not going to happen overnight. We are getting better each time we practice as a unit and it will get to the point where you don’t have to say anything to the guy next to you because you’ll know what he’s thinking.”
Davis also understands the pressure of stepping in as a rookie and joining the starting line-up. He was in a similar situation his rookie year.
“It is like any other opportunity, you get the opportunity, you have got to make the best of it,” commented Davis. “Right now he’s our center and he’s in the position I was in my rookie year, so he’s going to have to step up and play. He’s still learning too so we have to be on our ‘P’s and Q’s’ as far as helping him out. He’ll be fine.”
Starting jobs this off-season have proven not to be secure, but it is a coveted spot that Stepanovich doesn’t plan on losing.
“I want to hold this job through camp,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done, but I’m going to play to my best ability and try to become a leader upfront and hopefully by the first game, I’ll still be holding on to the job.”
“It became clear to me that we had to make some more changes on the line,” Green said. “That chemistry was not very good at all. I would be naïve to think that was going to change just because I was here.”
Kendall is an eight-year veteran who started 36 games in three seasons in Arizona, including 13 in 2003 at center. Green quickly named rookie Alex Stepanovich, a fourth-round selection out of Ohio State, as his replacement.
“He comes from Ohio State, a program where guys are ready to go,” Green stated. “As you know I said before the draft we wanted guys who were ready to go, ready to play. Alex fits that.”
"I've done my best to get the offensive line to understand what it is going to take to play as a unit and I don't think that has happened yet," continued Green. "I think by bringing a fresh player out of Ohio State who is used to winning, I know what he wants to do. Now those older guys have to figure out how they want to do."