Heap's homecoming hasn't gone as planned
TEMPE, Ariz. — In a football career filled with fairy tales, this was supposed to be the ultimate happy ending.
Following a successful 10-year NFL career in which he was drafted by the defending Super Bowl champs, earned two Pro Bowl selections and racked up gaudy numbers, tight end Todd Heap was coming home. Released unexpectedly by the Baltimore Ravens, the former Mesa Mountain View and Arizona State standout signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals.
"What better way to finish a career than to take the Cardinals back to the top?" he said when he arrived at training camp in Flagstaff last year.
Initially reluctant about the deal, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt changed his mind just a few days into training camp when he watched Heap compete at a high level and make the safety-valve and red-zone catches that could help new quarterback Kevin Kolb succeed. Despite adapting to a new offense, Heap caught two passes for 40 yards in the season opener and grabbed six and four respectively in Weeks 3 and 4.
But a hamstring injury forced him out of the next three games, and when he returned against the Rams on Nov. 6, he re-aggravated it, missing three of the next four games.
He finished the season with 24 receptions for 283 yards, his lowest output since 2007, when he played only six games for the Ravens. The only other season in which he put up lower numbers was his rookie year.
"The most frustrating thing was learning how to deal with it," Heap said Tuesday from the team's organized team activities. "When you hurt your hamstring, it's a very fine line of how hard you come back and how hard you push and when you push.
"I was trying to do everything at an accelerated pace, and I did it probably a couple times. I was so antsy to get out on the field. Part of that had to do with the fact that we were playing the Ravens and the (old rival) Steelers. A lot of it had to do with just wanting to be out there."
Another point of pressure was Heap's Valley-legend status. He won two Class 5A state championships at Mountain View and was a celebrated, big-game performer at ASU. Underachievement and injuries were not part of the local Heap lexicon.
"I guess you could say that sometimes you feel that pressure," Heap admitted. "But in my mind, any outside pressure has taken a back seat to the pressure I put on myself, and that's the hardest thing to deal with is when you know in your head what you can do and aren't able to go out and do it.
"I put myself on this demanding time schedule and I'm saying to myself, 'I feel I can get healthy on this day.' When you don't get to that point, it's frustrating."
With the hamstring fully healed, Heap has a clean bill of health and the chance to compete in valuable offseason workouts that were canceled last season due to the lockout. But he's facing a familiar challenge — one that led the Ravens to release him.
The Cardinals have a pair of young tight ends they are developing. Speedy receiving threat Rob Housler was the team's third-round pick in 2011, and blocking specialist Jim Dray was a seventh-round selection the year before. The emergence of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in Baltimore led to Heap's demise there, and there has been speculation that the Cards might also release Heap to save money since they have depth at the position.
If that happens, it won't occur before training camp with veteran Jeff King out with a partially torn quadriceps tendon that will sideline him until camp begins.
"We're going to see how that all works out," coach Whisenhunt said of the logjam at tight end. "Todd missed a lot of games last year because he was injured, and that hurt us being able to figure out what his role would be or where he would fit in. Training camp's going to be a time where he can show us what he can do. He shows flashes out here, but we need to see that consistency once we get to camp."
In a perfect world, Heap and Housler can both contribute and be on the field together in specific situations. Heap still sees himself as an every-down player and Housler's blocking still needs work, but Housler is the future at this position, and he's feeling more confident with every offseason workout.
"It feels like I had blinders on and now my eyes are working," Housler said. "You can understand an offense to a degree, but it's another thing to be able to make the adjustments and play at full speed. If you're thinking at all, you're losing a step.
"I really do feel a lot more comfortable now, because I know the plays and now it's just on me."
The Heap-Housler dynamic is one that plays out all over the NFL every season: Accomplished veteran tutors young talent who is set to replace him. But that reality doesn't bother Heap.
"My first year, coming in, I had Shannon Sharpe," he said. "He treated me like a man and treated me like a teammate. There was nothing else other than that.
"I've always taken that approach and taken on that role. You want to help them be the best they can be. You want all the best players out there playing with you, helping the team win. Rob's got a bright future and he's continually getting better. I think we can both be on the field making plays at the same time and really putting pressure on teams."
Heap is similarly unconcerned with the fact this is a contract year, with his deal set to expire after this season.
"In the NFL, contract years are relative because every year's a contract year," he said, noting he was released in Baltimore before his deal expired. "I thought I had a contract going into last year, but obviously it was a contract year the year before that.
"Every year you've got to prove yourself, show you're capable and show what your value is."