Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hauls in a one-handed catch in Oakland last week.
FLAGSTAFF – The pass came down, and Raiders rookie cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke actually looked like he had good position on the play.
Given the way Larry Fitzgerald and Van Dyke came together, when the ball disappeared into the bodies the expectation naturally was to see it bounce away a moment later for an incompletion. Instead, improbably, Fitzgerald made the catch – one-handed and left-handed, trapping the ball against his facemask for what turned out to be a 43-yard gain.
A reception that was anything but routine, it's difficult to think otherwise much of the time anymore. Fitzgerald's standing as one of the NFL's best receivers – if not the best – is undisputed. But the true appreciation to his work and his ability to make the spectacular catch so often may only be available to those who watch him daily.
Fitzgerald's amazing grabs aren't just game-related, nor an occasional thing. A highlight catch occurs nearly once every practice, a frequency that not only prepares Fitzgerald to be great in games but emphasizes his talent.
"I think," quarterback Kevin Kolb said at one point in camp, "we all get a little bit greedy."
Kolb, of course, was referring to the idea that everyone begins to expect Fitzgerald to make every catch, no matter the degree of difficulty. The funny thing is, Fitzgerald kind of does too.
"Since I started playing football at 7 years old, I have always had ball skills that were better than most guys around me," Fitzgerald said. "I have made tough catches, so I am kind of … I don't want to say used to it."
Except that he is used to it. Fitzgerald downplays what he does. The reality is that his goal since he arrived in the league is to be considered one of the best wide receivers – one of the best players – ever to play in the NFL. That's a high bar to hurdle, and the spectacular must be a given with such a résumé.
"I think the guy is so determined to make the catches, whether it's because he wants his numbers or whatever the motivation is," receivers coach John McNulty said. "Some guys have that split-second where they let up, 'Oh, I can't get that.' He just thinks that if it is in the area, from head to toe and anywhere within his wingspan or where he can dive, he's going to battle for every one."
Coach Ken Whisenhunt compared Fitzgerald to the ability of former NBA rebounding machine Dennis Rodman, a player who was athletic but not the most gifted in the league. Rodman had an incredible sense of timing, something that Fitzgerald shows, Whisenhunt said.
Whisenhunt saw Fitzgerald's hands on display when Whisenhunt coached for the Steelers and Fitzgerald was at the University of Pittsburgh. Whisenhunt was curious to see if it would translate to the pros. Now Whisenhunt gets to see that it has, every day.
"It is in large part because of the hard work – and let's not forget about how hard he does work at his craft – but he does have great natural ability," Whisenhunt said.
Part of Fitzgerald's pre-game routine has him standing on the sideline, facing out to the field while assistant head coach Russ Grimm stands directly behind, tossing a ball over Fitzgerald's head and requiring Fitzgerald to quickly locate it and snare it out of the air.
Maybe that makes it easier for Fitzgerald to pull in so many catches Willie-Mays-style, like he did at the Red-White practice. Maybe grabbing balls out of the air one-handed while warming up at times (even though he admits his coaches ask him to get it with two hands) aid in plays like at Kolb's first practice, giving Kolb his "first" touchdown pass as a Cardinal.
"With the plays he makes you want to give him a shot every time, and he wants a shot every time," Kolb said.
Fitzgerald isn't big on recounting his highlights. "I never look at myself that way," he said, noting that, for instance, the facemask-reception in Oakland should have been a routine catch had he squeezed his route a little sooner, moving Van Dyke off the ball. He didn't squeeze enough on another route, he said, leading to an incompletion for which Fitzgerald takes the blame.
"I can make my job easier," Fitzgerald said. "Those are the things I harp on. If I want to be a great player, those are the things I have to do if I want to continue to raise that bar."
Fitzgerald is already a great player, of course. Clearly, his penchant for the spectacular isn't the flip side of technique errors. It is, as McNulty said, his talent and mentality meshing to make him the NFL star that he is.
"There are still 'wow' plays he makes all the time," Whisenhunt said. "Your expectation of him making those plays? Yeah, you get numb to that a little bit, because you do see it all the time. But there are still catches he makes where you say, 'Wow, great catch.' "