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 FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -Preseason games are far from meaningless for Troy Bienemann.
When the Arizona Cardinals visit Oakland Saturday night, it will be Bienemann's first football game in 21 months. A former All-Pac-10 tight end at Washington State, Bienemann tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in the next-to-last game of his senior year, then tore it again six months later.
Now he's trying to make the Cardinals as a free agent, and a strong showing in Saturday night's preseason opener would help.
``I've been waiting for this for a long time,'' said Bienemann, who grew up in Santa Clara, Calif., not far from McAfee Coliseum. ``I'm going to treat it like a regular-season game. It's really all or nothing for me. It's my time to shine. That's one thing I can guarantee you: I'm going to be really nervous coming into that game.''
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Bienemann doesn't attract many autograph seekers when he walks off the Cardinals' tree-ringed practice fields at Northern Arizona University. But he may end up playing an important role this season.
So far, coach Ken Whisenhunt has not been impressed with the overall play at tight end.
``I think that we show flashes, but I'm concerned that we haven't developed a little bit more consistency,'' Whisenhunt said before practice Tuesday afternoon.
Leonard Pope, the Cardinals' third round pick a year ago, came to training camp as the starter, with Bienemann listed second on the depth chart. Ben Patrick, chosen in the seventh round last spring, is listed third and Tim Euhus, John Bronson and Alex Shor are also in the mix.
Whisenhunt said his tight ends have been slow to master pass routes.
``We've just had too many mistakes in that area where we've run the wrong route or we've gotten into the wrong seam, and it's a little bit of repeat mistakes, which is something you don't want to see happen,'' Whisenhunt said.
Whisenhunt, who played tight end for nine years in the NFL, has high expectations for the position. As the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, he coached standout tight ends Mark Bruener, Jerame Tuman and Heath Miller.
``They kind of, in my mind, set the standard for what you want from that position,'' Whisenhunt said. ``And I guess, fair or unfair, that's kind of how I judge that position. I hold those guys to those kind of expectations.''
So far, none of the Cardinals' tight ends are consistently meeting them. But Bienemann has impressed his coaches in the first 10 days of camp.
``Troy's been a very pleasant surprise,'' Whisenhunt said. ``He's a product of coming in here and working. He's a guy with his back against the wall that's been injured and just wanted a shot, and I respect the progress that he's made.
``He's still got a ways to go, but he has done some good things, and he has been noticed,'' Whisenhunt said.
For Bienemann, making it to training camp was something of a victory.
He first hurt his knee catching a touchdown pass against Oregon in November 2005. Although Bienemann was a solid prospect coming out of school, no NFL team risked a draft pick on him.
Bienemann signed with New Orleans as a free agent. He was finishing one of his last rehabilitation workouts at the team's practice facility when he tore the same ligament. Another operation soon followed, and the Saints released him.
Bienemann spent the next nine months rehabilitating and trying to find a team that would give him a shot.
``No takers early on as you could imagine - two surgeries in six months,'' Bienemann said.
He said he never gave up hope that someone would give him a chance. The Cardinals called last spring, and Bienemann came to camp with a healthy knee and a healthy attitude.
``Not for one second did I ever think it was the end of my career,'' Bienemann said. ``I hope this doesn't come off the wrong way, but I've always known that I could play at this level, or at least believed I could.
``It's not like they took my hands away, or took my talent or my work ethic away,'' Bienemann said.
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