The catch went for only two yards, but there was so much more packed into it for Larry Fitzgerald.
It was spectacularly one-handed, and it was good for a first down. And as the veteran wide receiver went out of bounds on the Cardinals sideline, he bellowed to his coaches, “Feed me! Feed me!”
“If you’re wondering if he’s still competitive,” Cardinals receivers coach David Raih said with a smile as he recalled the moment. “He’s sweating, dreads hanging out.”
Any idea of Fitzgerald, in his 16th season and having turned 36 at the end of August, potentially retiring seems a fallacy. That question has been popular – and proper – at the end of the last few years. But the introduction of Kliff Kingsbury’s offense and the arrival of rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has inspired a Fitz renaissance. With 13 receptions for 217 yards, he’s off to one of his best starts to a season.
Some of the career achievements were inevitable. Fitzgerald is now just 10 receptions from surpassing Tony Gonzalez for the second-most catches in NFL history (behind Jerry Rice; Fitzgerald is already second in yards to Rice.) His first catch against the Panthers Sunday will be the 230th straight game in which he’ll have a reception.
But to have Fitz notch 100-yard games in each of the first two weeks? That’s something he had never done in his career, and it’s the first time he’s had back-to-back 100-yard games since early in the 2015 season. Moreover, Fitzgerald has already had four receptions of at least 40 yards this season – his first 40-yard catches since 2015.
“We knew he could be a weapon for us,” Kingsbury said.
Fitz being Fitz, he’s loath to talk about his personal success. He lines up where he’s asked to line up, he says, and runs the plays he’s asked to run. But doesn’t this kind of success make him happy, especially this many seasons into his career?
“I don’t need another catch or another yard or another touchdown,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not going to change anything for me at the end of the day. What makes me happy is winning and being competitive in games and seeing (teammates) making plays. That’s what makes me happy.”
Earlier this week, Fitzgerald sat in the wide receivers room as the group broke down the Ravens game, taking notes on his laptop. Perhaps that 100 yards could’ve been 200, with a couple of touchdowns, if certain parts of his game were just cleaned up.
“I just think he views life that way, and that’s why he’s 10 receptions short of it being him and Rice,” Raih said.
Kingsbury and Raih said they had no preconceived notions of Fitzgerald prior to working with him. They knew his age, of course, but Raih wanted to see Fitzgerald up close, in individual drills when the Cardinals first got on the field in the spring.
There, it was easy to see Fitzgerald’s attention to detail, the thing every coach who had ever watched him saw. If he did something wrong in practice, he’d rep it again. Coaches often have talked about the example Fitzgerald sets for younger players, of which there are many in the receivers room. It’s easy to find tangible examples watching just one practice.
“There’s no pixie dust in the way he approaches it,” Raih said. “He’s so proactive, and so urgent to get it right. It’s not an accident.”
Fitzgerald’s statistics tumbled last season after three straight 1,000-yard campaigns – 69 receptions, a career-low 734 yards – mostly because of the mess the entire offense had become. It’s taken two games to show what an outlier that was.
“He understands he’s not going to get the separation at times that he once did, but he has a lot of trust in his hands and his body control and his ability to position himself to make those plays,” Kingsbury said. “He wants us to trust him and give him a chance on some of those 50/50 balls.”
For as humble and gracious Fitzgerald has always been, especially taking about himself, there is little question he has long believed that trust should be there.
“When the ball is in the air, it means more to No. 11 than anyone else on the field,” Raih said. “And you can see it. You can feel it.”
Murray is off to a terrific start as a rookie QB. It’s fair to wonder if he’d be in the same spot without Fitzgerald. The chemistry Fitzgerald and Murray share was apparent from the offseason and OTAs, and the relationship is already symbiotic.
Murray hung in long enough for Fitzgerald to eventually get deep on an inside wheel route in Baltimore, finally taking a hit on a play that resulted in a 40-yard sliding-catch-and-run. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, basically rescued Murray’s debut with a pair of spectacular diving catches against the Lions, each for more than 40 yards.
“I think every young quarterback needs a security blanket, him being that guy for me,” Murray said. “He knows what he’s seeing out there; he’s seen it a lot, and he can still run around. He can still run. Whether you think he can or not, he’s going to be there, so I can count on him.”
Linebacker Jordan Hicks, who with the Eagles had to prepare for Fitzgerald for a game in 2015, said a defense has to “pick and choose” with such a player. Now that he’s on the same team, Hicks can just enjoy the show.
“Sometimes you sit back and think, ‘He’s the GOAT,’ ” Hicks said. “What he’s doing right now, it’s spectacular. It’s cool to witness.”
There are other benefits for the Cardinals when Fitzgerald is producing often. Big plays generally are going to rev up an offense or a team or the State Farm Stadium crowd.
But when Fitzgerald does it, the equation changes.
“When a guy like Larry Fitzgerald makes the play and rises up the way he does, there’s almost something majestic about it that everybody goes, ‘Alright our guy is coming through, let’s go,’ ” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team faces the Cardinals Sunday. “That’s pretty special.”
It’s early in the season, but in only one season has Fitzgerald averaged more yards per catch than the 16.7 he is averaging through two games. With Kingsbury’s proclivity to four-receiver sets and the uptick in passing attempts from Murray, Fitzgerald is going to get opportunities – he’s been targeted 24 times in two games.
When it was suggested he might be getting open more often within the Kingsbury offense, Fitzgerald calmly but bluntly knocked it down.
“Not necessarily,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been getting open all this time.”
The Cardinals are getting the message.
“ ‘Feed me, feed me,’ ” Raih repeats. “Hey, we’re trying, bud. We’re on board for that.”
Images from past games between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the Carolina Panthers