The Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, if we were to translate football years into human years, is about 137 years old. Well not really, but last year, when he only snagged two touchdown catches among his 63 receptions for 784 yards, most barbershop Monday morning quarterbacks were comparing him to Joe Louis when he got knocked out by Rocky Marciano.
The prevailing wisdom was that Fitzgerald had seen his better days. Most assumed that he was holding on to complete his spectacular career in a way that was juxtaposed with his dignified status as an eight-time Pro Bowler and the player who ranks fifth all-time in career receiving yards per game.
It didn’t seem like that long ago when he surpassed the incomparable Randy Moss (not to be confused with the petite Randy Moss) to become the youngest receiver in NFL history to compile 11,000 receiving yards.
I’ve long admired not only his skill, but how he carries himself as a person. When you think of the wide receiver prima donna stereotype, Fitzgerald is the polar opposite of that image. He’s more like Art Monk, Steve Largent, Harold Carmichael and Fred Biletnikoff: a solid, grounded individual who is among the best to ever play the position.
I'm still mad that the Heisman voters gave him the TJM back in 2003. You know what that is, right?
THE JERK MOVE!!!
Fitzgerald was not only the best receiver, but the best player in all of college football that year. If I was Oklahoma’s QB Jason White, I could not in clear conscience display that Heisman Trophy without a handwritten Sharpie note attached to it that says, “This really belongs to Pitt’s Larry Fitzgerald, but since they gave it to me, I’m keeping it.”
As a college football junkie, I stopped paying attention to Pitt once Curtis Martin was drafted in 1995. When Fitzgerald came along, accumulating 161 receptions for 2,677 yards and 34 receiving touchdowns in only 26 games, he rekindled my childhood fondness for the program that was a byproduct of watching guys like Hugh Green, Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett.
And thanks to him, I tuned into the Panthers long enough after he left to be mesmerized by another luminescent young talent coming up on the horizon by the name of Darrelle Revis.
Despite being excited about Cam Newton’s two touchdown passes in his first playoff victory, it was tough to watch how Fitzgerald’s season ended last year. The 11-5 Cardinals lost to the 8-8 Carolina Panthers in a mini-monsoon, 27-16, in the NFC Wild Card Playoff, a game in which they actually led, 14-13, at halftime.
Arizona was held to a paltry 78 yards of total offense, the fewest yards ever allowed in an NFL Playoff game. The 12 total yards that the Cardinals gained in the second half was embarrassing.
What made it so tough was that Arizona was hotter than J-Lo on the red carpet before quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton’s injuries sabotaged an outstanding 9-1 start. They finished by losing five of their final seven games.
With his numbers declining and father time seemingly on his heels like The Baseball Furies in pursuit of The Warriors, coupled with what had to be his dissatisfaction with a diminished role in the offense, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Fitzgerald would wind up like other NFL greats who finished their careers with teams other than the ones that they’d long been associated with – like Emmitt Smith in Arizona, Jerry Rice in Seattle, the great Johnny Unitas in San Diego, Tony Dorsett in Denver, Ronnie Lott, Art Monk and Brett Favre with the Jets, Franco Harris with the Seahawks, The Juice with the 49’ers and Joe Montana with the Chiefs.
But through the first four weeks of this season, which is Fitzgerald’s 12th in the league, he’s playing the best football of his career. He’s averaging 108 receiving yards per game while putting a definitive stamp on his Hall of Fame resume.
After falling short of the 1,000-yard plateau over the last three years, he’s re-emerged as one of the most dangerous receivers in the game.
After opening the season with six catches for 87 yards in Arizona's 31-19 win against the Saints, he exploded for eight catches, 112 yards and three touchdowns in their 48-23 destruction of the Bears.
He followed that up with two more touchdown grabs and 134 yards on nine receptions in the week 3, 47-7 smack-down of San Francisco. Last week, he caught seven balls for 99 yards in their first loss of the year, 24-22, to the Rams.
The underlying reasons for his rebirth are easy to find. After suffering a damaged nerve in his throwing shoulder and a season-ending ACL tear last year, Cardinals QB Carson Palmer is also playing the best ball of his career right now. At his current rate of production, if he can remain healthy, Palmer is projected to throw for a career high in touchdowns.
He’s a big reason why Fitzgerald, who’s lining up all over the field in Arizona’s Air Coryell offense, has gotten off to such a searing start to the season with 30 receptions for 432 yards and five touchdowns in an offense that is averaging 32 points per game.
Fitzgerald is on pace for a 1,700 yard, 20-touchdown campaign and he already has nearly half of the total receiving yards, after four games, that he had all of last year.
With a healthy Carson Palmer and other weapons in the passing game like John Brown, David Johnson, Michael Floyd, Darren Fells, Jermaine Gresham, Chris Johnson and Jaron Brown all averaging over ten yards per catch, defenses can no longer simply shut down the Cardinals, who are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, by focusing on Fitzgerald.
The clock may be ticking, but he’s already proven that his production last year was an abnormality as opposed to a pattern, caused more by key injuries at the quarterback position than his own physical decline.
His soft hands, precise route-running, body control and football IQ remain as sharp as ever.
It’s great to be reminded that one of the game’s greats, in the twilight of his career, still has so much to give. A few months ago, folks were ready to put Larry Fitzgerald out to pasture.
It seems, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.