FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Levi Brown could have high-tailed it out of town this offseason when the Cardinals released him. Maybe he should have.
The Cardinals left tackle has been a lightning rod for media and fan criticism since he arrived as the club’s first-round (fifth overall) pick in 2007 ahead of — stop us if you’ve heard this before — running back Adrian Peterson.
After all the barbs he’s absorbed, who would have blamed Brown if he had wanted a fresh start?
“The important thing that a lot of people don’t know is that Levi had a number of opportunities with other teams,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday. “He chose not to exercise those and come back here because he felt very strongly about this team.”
Brown is not a glutton for punishment. He just possesses a strong sense of self, culled from a supportive family upbringing. Those who know him well describe him as a self-motivated man of patience, openness, intelligence and determination.
“He’s the kind of guy you’d want your sister to date,” center Lyle Sendlein said.
So why would he let others dictate his life’s terms?
“To me, going somewhere else doesn’t necessarily mean a fresh start,” Brown said Monday. “I can see how you look at it that way, but a new contract is a fresh start. I’ve got a new contract. I’m here. I’m just going to go out and work on what I have to work on and get better.”
In the eyes of the Cardinals’ coaches and several noted analysts, Brown did a great deal of improving over the second half of the 2011 season, when the Cards won seven of their final nine games.
“He was a little more consistent on the technique, and that’s the biggest thing,” offensive line coach Russ Grimm said.
Brown said it was the attention to detail that aided his consistency down the stretch.
“Hand placement, getting your head over the top of your knees,” he said, listing a couple. “Just the little things that when you get tired, you get lax on.”
Brown’s critics scarcely noticed. When the Cards released him, it was because he was due an $8.3 million salary and had a cap number of nearly $17 million. Those were numbers the team was never going to pay.
But, to the chagrin of the fan base, the Cardinals made it clear they wanted Brown back. There was a simple reason.
“He’s the best guy we’ve got for the spot,” Grimm said. “He works hard every day. He got better in the second half of the season, and hopefully it rolls into this year.”
By now, Whisenhunt and Grimm understand full well why fans have such a visceral reaction to the sound of Brown’s name. Much of it is due to his early-career struggles, but some of it they shrug off, understanding that left tackle is one of the hardest positions for the layman to evaluate.
“It’s a position where a lot of times you get hung out to dry,” Grimm said. “Somebody’s got a tougher job than somebody else, and a lot of times, we put that job on Levi.”
Grimm followed with an example.
“You can’t protect both edges with (running) backs,” he said. “We’ll sit here and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to double this guy down inside and we’ve got to chip on this guy over here,’ and Levi’s the guy (to whom) we say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hold up.'”
And if he doesn’t, everyone notices — despite his successful execution on the majority of plays.
“It’s six inches between a pat on the back and a slap in the face,” Grimm said. “The perception is what it is, but Levi Brown, to me, he’s a hell of a football player. We ask him to do a lot of stuff.”
Brown understands the genesis of the criticism, but he has held up both physically and mentally. And despite a revolving door of linemen the past few years and the continued scorn of some in the fan base, he is ready for the next challenge.
“It’s a demanding position, but that’s what I’m here for,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t a fan of this guy right now, but one thing (my former Penn State) coach (Joe) Paterno taught us was that you never stay the same. You’re either going to get better or get worse.
“I feel like things finally started to come together (last year) that I had been working on. I’ve just got to make sure I pick up from there and not go backwards.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter