If this was it for Larry Fitzgerald, in front of the home fans that love him so much, it was one to remember.
The veteran wide receiver threw his first NFL touchdown pass, 32 yards to running back David Johnson, a beautiful highlight for a State Farm Stadium crowd that was looking for reasons to break out in their “Lar-RY” chant whenever they could. He had six receptions, too.
Yet the Cardinals lost, 31-9, to the Los Angeles Rams Sunday in their home finale – in a year in which they won just one of eight home games, their worst mark at home since moving to Arizona. Christmas is coming, and Fitzgerald always finds reasons to smile, but still, it wouldn’t be the way he’d want to go out if indeed retirement becomes the decision.
“It’s hard to soak in something like this,” Fitzgerald admitted. “Not a good day across the board.”
With speculation about head coach Steve Wilks swirling, the players were saying they hoped Wilks wouldn’t go anywhere. Wilks said he has not had a discussion with team president Michael Bidwill or GM Steve Keim about his job because “asking those guys about the future means I’m not focused on the job at hand.”
“I don’t listen to the outside noise,” Wilks said. “I will say this, I walked into this organization with integrity, and whenever that time comes I’m going to walk out with integrity, and hopefully that is 12 (or) 15 years from now.”
But the Cardinals (3-12) aren’t helping with games like Sunday. The Rams (12-3), who had lost two straight, were without injured running back Todd Gurley (knee). No matter. C.J. Anderson, the veteran who had signed with Los Angeles just days earlier, rushed for 167 yards on only 20 carries.
The Rams rushed for 269 yards as a team, a week after the Falcons had dented the Cards for 215 yards on the ground. They collected 33 first downs, grinding the Cardinals with scoring drives of 75, 84, 75, 86 and 95 yards.
The Cardinals rushed for 5.8 yards a carry themselves, but the team-leading 49 yards came from rookie quarterback Josh Rosen on four carries. David Johnson had just 35 on 10 carries. Chase Edmonds had 20 yards on four carries – but 20 yards came on a fake punt.
In fact, the two biggest plays for the Cards were the fake punt and Fitzgerald’s TD pass.
“You’ve got to get creative when things aren’t working, and we did,” Rosen said. “But you can only pull out so many gadgets.”
Rosen finished 12-for-23 passing for 87 yards, was sacked four times and hit many more before Wilks benched him in the fourth quarter for a second straight week simply to protect the rookie.
The Cards looked like they were going to make it Fitzgerald’s day. He had three catches in the first quarter, helping an initial field-goal drive to get his team a 3-0 lead. Then came the pass to cap a 75-yard drive, a perfect backward throw from Rosen before Fitz moved in his “pocket” to loft the ball to Johnson in stride.
“It was OK,” Fitzgerald said. “It wasn’t my best one. First touchdown I’ve thrown since high school – it’s been a long time.”
There were multiple times Fitzgerald was lauded from the crowd, between the chants of his name and the playing of the “12 Plays of Fitzmas” video on the giant video board. Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t look at it, and even after all these years, he flinches just a bit with the attention.
“It’s a little uncomfortable to be singled out,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s cool, but you never get used to that.”
Fitzgerald had attempted three passes previously in his career. One was complete, last season to Jaron Brown for 21 yards – during a game on Christmas Eve. Sunday’s game, on Christmas Eve eve, might have underscored the time of year in which Fitzgerald shines as a passer.
“This town loves Larry,” Rosen said. “The fanbase is sort of starving for a couple of things to look forward to, looking for a couple positives, and that was a fun one. I apologize there weren’t more of those this season.”
That’s what has Wilks batting back speculation. Fitzgerald again gave his support to Wilks when asked but noted it was above his pay grade to talk about whether Wilks deserved longer than a single season. Defensive tackle Corey Peters also said it wasn’t his place to make demands, but echoed Fitzgerald’s sentiments.
“I don’t make those decisions, but I’m comfortable going on record as saying we like Coach Wilks,” Peters said. “We hope to have him back. He’s done a good job despite circumstances. Our failures are not necessarily directly on him. The players, I would say, bear the majority of the blame.”
The coach has something in common with his most famous player then, about whether there will be another State Farm Stadium game for them in the future.
“I can’t really speak enough about Larry,” Wilks said. “Not only what he brings to this organization but to the Shield itself, the National Football League. Just a true pillar of this league.”
Images from the Week 16 matchup at State Farm Stadium