TEMPE, Ariz. — This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. Not for a local legend. Not for Todd Heap.
When the Cards signed him to a two-year deal in July of 2011, it was thought that Heap would provide a safety blanket for Kevin Kolb, the team’s newly acquired quarterback. In Philadelphia, Kolb loved to throw to tight end Brent Celek.
Heap came to the Cardinals on the heels of 10 seasons with Baltimore, where he was the Ravens’ career leader in receiving touchdowns (41) and was second in receptions (467) and receiving yards (5,492). In 2010, Heap had 40 catches for 599 yards and five TDs, plus he caught a franchise postseason record 10 passes for 108 yards against Kansas City.
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But NFL careers rarely have Hollywood endings. Last season, Heap missed six games with injuries and only started four. This season, in Week 2, he sprained a knee ligament on an illegal hit out of bounds against New England and hasn’t played since.
“It is frustrating,” said Heap, who won two state championships at Mesa Mountain View and then when on to a storied career at Arizona State. “But you can’t let it get you down. You just have to keep your head down and keep working to get better.”
For eight weeks, Heap’s absence was said to be a product of the injury, even if it seemed odd that a sprain would keep a player out that long. But Heap returned to practice on a full basis last week, so when he was declared inactive by a coach’s decision, eyebrows were raised.
On Wednesday, coach Ken Whisenhunt said the decision was a product of the time off.
“Reps in practice,” Whisenhunt said. “You’ve got to get ready to play, and that’s part of it.”
Heap acknowledged there is some rust from that much time off, but he also hinted at one point that the decision to sit him on Sunday was “a numbers game.”
It is no secret that Whisenhunt had a recent talk with Heap. Some believed that Whisenhunt was calling Heap out for not playing through some pain while the team has been mired in a seven-game losing streak.
“That’s always going to bother you,” Heap said of such speculation. “I don’t think you’d be a competitor if it didn’t bother you, but you can’t let it change how you look at things, how you prepare, and it’s not going to change how you feel.
“There’s always a lot more that goes into any injury, but it’s not for me to comment on. It’s not for me to raise as an issue. I just have to let people think what they think and worry about what I can do.”
Heap admits that’s hard.
“It’s hard to watch that — to hear it and be a part of it but it comes with the territory. For me to comment on it or say what I think serves no purpose. Even doing interviews, it’s hard to comment on it and tell people exactly what’s going on.”
One thing that seems all too clear is that Heap’s days in Arizona are numbered. In his absence, the Cards have gotten a good long look at his replacement, tight end Rob Housler, who is the franchise’s future at the position.
“I’ve seen him get better,” Whisenhunt said. “He’s gotten a lot of play time, and that’s helped him. He’s made some big plays for us.”
The Cards also have Jeff King and Jim Dray, so when Heap says tight end is a numbers game, it carries dual meaning. It is highly unlikely that Heap will return to the Cards next season. Will the 12-year veteran return to the NFL?
“I don’t really give that evaluation until the season is over and done with, so there’s no point in speculating,” Heap said. “But I definitely don’t want to finish my career on a year like this.”
As for this week, Heap hopes that stacking a few practices with plenty of reps together can land him back on the field. But that will be the coach’s decision.