The news one of the writers voting put Fitzgerald ninth in the league, however, raised eyebrows. Then came the resulting explanation, that the reporter graded Fitzgerald down not because of any of Fitzgerald’s talents or lack thereof, but instead because of who he has throwing him the ball.
Rankings meant as water-cooler debate aside, it’s a point that may be the most relevant in any discussion about Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals.
Of course the Cardinals need to find a quarterback. That is obvious, and improving quarterback play been mentioned more than a few times by the team’s decision makers. “We’ve got to get that addressed,” team president Michael Bidwill said again this week.
In the case of Fitzgerald, however, the role of quarterback goes a little deeper than just the obvious.
The world knows Fitzgerald’s contract – the one that prevents the team from using the franchise tag and the one containing a no-trade clause – ends after the 2011 season. The team and Fitzgerald were in talks about an extension, and the team continues to insist a deal will get done while Fitzgerald continues to insist he wants to remain in Arizona.
Money will not be an issue. The Cardinals are expected to meet Fitzgerald’s desires in that area. As last season progressed, however, Fitzgerald talked more and more about wanting to make sure he played for a winner. He was always careful not to talk about having a better quarterback – Fitzgerald is too smart for that – but it was not difficult to read between the lines.
“You can do the same thing you’ve done for 10 years and if the quarterback doesn’t understand how you play the game, it’s a struggle,” said former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, the man who Fitzgerald so desperately missed in 2010. “He’s talented and they are going to force him the ball and he’ll do some of those things, but it becomes much more difficult than in the past.
“I don’t know numbers, but I’d be interested to see the number of catches he had compared to the number of times he was targeted this year as opposed to past years.”
Fitzgerald still had 90 receptions for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns this past season. But those 90 catches came on 168 targets, or 53.6 percent. In 2009, when Fitzgerald had 97 catches (for 1,092 yards and 13 touchdowns), it came on 153 targets (63.4 percent).
“I felt in the past we were successful getting completions to him and making it work, whereas this year – especially early – there were a lot of struggles, you could tell, he was open and they just missed on some big plays and key plays,” Warner said. “It affects the way a game and a season transpires. When we were successful, it led to points and it led to wins. This year he may have got his catches but they were more sporadic and not so much in the course of specific, successful drives to win games.”
Some of that clearly boiled over into frustration for Fitzgerald, although he seemed to come to terms by the up-and-down nature of the situation by the end of the season. After the Dallas win he said “four years ago I might have been pouting on the sidelines” after not getting a catch most of the game, but instead he made a crucial fourth-down reception from rookie John Skelton with a couple of minutes left.
Fitzgerald most certainly doesn’t want such a thing to become habit.
Whoever is throwing him the ball this coming season – whether it is Skelton or a veteran like Marc Bulger or Kevin Kolb or a freshly minted rookie like Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder – Fitzgerald needs to feel it is movement in the right direction. He’ll probably need to have a little patience too. To paraphrase one-time Celtics coach Rick Pitino, Warner is not walking through that door.
Fitz often talks about his need to win, and no one disputes that. But he has also often noted his need to leave a legacy and be one of the best receivers ever. “I have a burning desire to be great,” he said midway through the season.
He’s a receiver, though, and his greatness is impacted by his quarterback. Fitzgerald might not have noticed an ESPN.com ranking or why he was slotted where he was, but you can be sure that he has already been considering the very same factors.
“I don’t think there are many (relationships) that are as intricate or important, especially with the way the NFL has taken off as a passing league, than the one between a quarterback and receiver,” Warner said.