Safety Kerry Rhodes (25) makes a big play in the Cards' recent win, returning a fumble 27 yards for a crucial touchdown against the Saints.
Sometimes, said Larry Fitzgerald, he looks into his teammates' eyes in the huddle and hears a plea: "Fitz, we need something."
When that happens, Fitzgerald said, "I know I have to make a play."
Sometimes, it's unspoken, a request dictated by circumstance – the swell of noise from the crowd, the scoreboard, or down and distance. Sometimes it's a result created from a coach's scheme. But it can't come from just anyone on the roster.
"You need a guy who can make the play," safety Kerry Rhodes said.
It's a cliché, especially in football. Guys are called "playmakers" or want to go out and "make plays," when, by definition alone, that's simply the whole point of playing the game by anyone who wears a uniform.
In the code of the NFL, however, it goes a little deeper than that. It's not exactly simple to explain what a playmaker is, most guys admit, but they know it when they see it. And if a team doesn't have a few on each side of the ball, success is difficult to attain.
"A playmaker can change the game, sometimes by himself," linebacker Joey Porter said. "When you are counting on a guy and he comes through for you, there is no bigger joy for that to happen and the energy flows through the whole team.
"Take Fitzgerald, you count on him to make big plays. When he makes those one-handed grabs or jumps over two guys in the end zone for the touchdown, it doesn't just ignite the team it ignites the whole fan base. And you're like, 'He did it again.' And that 'He did it again' fires everybody up."
The Cardinals are coming off a game in which serve as examples. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett – and aren't most Pro Bowlers playmakers automatically? – stripped the ball from Saints running back Ladell Betts, the first big play.
Before the whistle blew, Rhodes had scooped up the fumble and returned it for a game-changing touchdown – the second straight week Rhodes had been in the right-place-right-time to score on a turnover.
Earlier this year, safety Adrian Wilson dominated the Rams with a couple of interceptions, a sack and a blocked field goal, becoming that day's dictionary-style definition of playmaker.
"I have been on some defenses in the past where I was one of the only guys that was a playmaker," Rhodes said. "It looks good for you, but at the end of the day, you're not going to win enough to win a championship and this is the ultimate team game."
Some of it is about scheme, Rhodes said. Some of it is about trust, as in trust the coaches have to give a player freedom to go make something happen if the player sees an opportunity.
Trust comes through preparation, however. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the playmakers that come to mind – Ray Lewis, Troy Polomalu, Rod Woodson, even Fitzgerald – do it through video study and an understanding of the opponent, as well as through some help with the scheme.
Then again, Whisenhunt said, "it seems to me, the guys who consistently make those plays do it no matter what."
"Making a play" doesn't mean every play, either. Fitzgerald has his share of routine catches that he wouldn't consider anything other than part of the job description. There has to have impact.
"You can tell the ones that get you out of your seat, the ones that make you say, 'Wow, I can't believe he made that play,' " said cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who made one himself at the end of the Saints game with an interception return for a touchdown.
Porter figures a team needs to have three playmakers on each side of the ball. That way the team has multiple places to turn if needed.
"A true playmaker can be a playmaker in any scheme he is in -- that's what makes him the playmaker," Porter said. "Like that first game against St. Louis, A-Dub just took over. That was a playmaker day. He took over the game. DRC last game did the work and took it to the house."
Porter paused, mentally noting his own slow start.
"I am ready to show all of them I am a playmaker," Porter said. "I am ready to have my breakout game so they'll say 'There he goes again.' "
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