The two concurring themes of this article: (1) 1 play, 1 draft pick, 1 year away coincidences for the Cardinals; (2) the sheer greatness of the Cardinals' WR Larry Fitzgerald.
What Might Have Been---The Ghost of Christmas Past
Let the spirit take us back to the year 2003. Carson Palmer is taken #1 by the Bengals. When it is time for the Cardinals to pick at #6, suddenly we are reminded that there has been a trade with the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have given the Cardinals the #17, #18 and #54 picks in exchange for the #6, #37 and #102 picks. The Saints at #6 select Jonathan Sullivan, DT, Georgia. The Cardinals' three picks are: #17. Bryant Johnson, WR, Penn. St.; #18 Calvin Pace, DE, Wake Forest; #54 Anquan Boldin, WR, Florida St.
Meanwhile, with the #7 pick, there is sudden mayhem. The Vikings have not submitted their pick in on time...so the Jaguars rush to the podium and select QB Byron Leftwich of Marshall. Leftwich goes on to record a 24-20 record in his 4 years in Jacksonville with a 51-36 TD/INT ratio.
Bryant Johnson and Calvin Pace struggle mightily for the Cardinals---but Anquan Boldin becomes an immediate star by amassing 217 versus the Lions in his first start and winning the 2003 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
2003 is the last year in Arizona for head coach Dave McGinnis, the Ol' Fuzziwig of coaches---the nicest and most passionate boss imaginable. His starting QB journeyman Jeff Blake goes 3-10 on the season and the QB reins are handed over to 2002 3rd round QB Josh McCown. McCown loses his first two games, but the spirit shows us McCown's last second TD pass versus the Vikings to Nathan Poole in the right corner of the end zone which knocks the Vikings out of the playoffs and sends Coach McGinnis out with a stunning win...and...in the process...which knocks the Cardinals out of the #1 spot in the 2004 NFL Draft.
In comes old Minnesota HC Denny Green who promises a Top 5 offense (with a pie chart of his past offenses). And while McCown delivered some last second heroics versus the Vikings, all the pundits and scouts agree that the Cardinals need to use their #3 pick to draft a franchise QB.
Had the Cardinals not beaten the Vikings, they would have been able to draft QB Eli Manning with the #1 pick. The Raiders at #2 opt to take T Robert Gallery of Iowa. So now the Cardinals at #3 are right in line to select QB Philip Rivers. However, despite using their #17 and #54 picks in the 2003 draft on WRs and having the NFL's Rookie of the Year in WR Anquan Boldin, Denny Green selects his old Minny water boy WR Larry Fitzgerald.
Then---all mayhem ensues when it is reported that Eli Manning and the Manning family will not accept going to the Chargers---and in comes the Giants at #4, who select Rivers and swap him for Manning. Could the Cardinals have done that at #3? Would the Manning’s have accepted the Cardinals? Would it all have been moot of the Cardinals had taken QB Byron Leftwich with the #6 pick in the 2003 draft? Or---could the Cardinals have taken their chances at #3 in 2004 with another 1st Team All-MAC QB named Ben Roethlisberger?
Regardless---while Denny Green's tenure in Arizona was a relatively short and unfulfilled one in Arizona, the spirit shows us how WR Larry Fitzgerald becomes the face of the Cardinals' franchise---how despite going through myriads of QBs , catching TDs from 17 of them along the way---how he catches fire with QB Kurt Warner in 2008 and 2009, catching 3 TDs in the NFC Championship Game in 2008, catching 2 TDs in Super Bowl XLIII, the second of which he races 64 yards with to give the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with a little over 2 minutes left in the game, alas only to be beaten out on a pass from Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone...a play called in by Steelers' OC Bruce Arians...
And Fitzgerald strikes like lightning once again in the 2015 playoffs with Arians now his HC, when in OT Fitz takes a scrambling Carson Palmer's out pass and races 75 yards around tacklers to the Packers' 5-yard line and scores right up the middle on the next play on a five-yard shovel pass---to cement his legacy as the most prolific WR in the history of the NFL playoffs.
We watch again as Fitzgerald at age 33 leads the NFL in receptions in 2016 with 107. Then we watch in 2017 as he moves to 3rd place all-time in receiving yards and 2nd all-time in receptions.
What Is---The Ghost of Christmas Present
With the Cardinals officially eliminated from the 2017 playoffs and with Bruce Arians handing the QB reins from Blaine Gabbert back over to Drew Stanton---the final home game of the year versus the 2-12 Giants offered little in the way of meaningful competition---that is until it became clear from the outset that Larry Fitzgerald had once again come to play like it was the first round of the playoffs.
On the second offensive snap, Stanton turned and fired the ball over the middle to Fitzgerald who made a sure handed (as always) catch and it was game on. On the team's first scoring drive, Fitzgerald caught passes of 19, 20 and 3 yards to set up Phil Dawson's FG.
In the second quarter, Fitzgerald threw a nifty 21-yard completion to WR Jaron Brown off a flea flicker, which after the game Fitz was happy to say that it kicked in Brown's $500K 30 catch incentive.
A series later, Fitzgerald broke the Cardinals' 11 quarter TD drought, when he took a 13-yard Stanton pass to the house. No huge celebration from Fitz, as always. But he did keep the football and cradle it with him to the sidelines.
On Stanton's other TD to John Brown, Fitz was ecstatic for his oft-injured teammate and tackled him to the turf before other teammate started lifting him off the ground.
When the inspired defense, led by DE Chandler Jones (4 QB pressures), S Antione Bethea (2 ints.), S Budda Baker (13 tackles); ILB Karlos Dansby (10 tackles) and ILB Deone Bucannon (8 tackles), kept forcing turnovers and 3 and outs, Fitz was the first to celebrate with them as they ran off the field---and was the first to go wild with them when they recorded the Cardinals' first shutout in 15 years---only the second shutout in Arizona Cardinals' history.
After the wonderful 23-0 win, when asked by the media whether Fitz was soaking everything in if indeed this was his last game in Arizona before the home fans---Fitz said what he always says---"my focus is to always be in the moment. That's the way I always play the game."
What's to Come---The Ghost of Christmas Future
Before yesterday's game, Ian Rappaport was reporting some speculation that if HC Bruce Arians retires the Cardinals are showing early interest in Texans' HC Bill O'Brien and Eagles' QBC John DeFilippo.
Arians has not stated whether he intends to return or retire. Rappaport mentioned that BA had been discussing changes to his staff with the FO (an indication that he wants to return) and also that BA has hired a media agent in case he wants to direct his attention to broadcasting.
Meanwhile, the futures of WR Larry Fitzgerald and QB Carson Palmer are very uncertain at this point. Fitz has said that wants to take some time to figure everything out---which likely means he wants to see what the Cardinals' plans are moving forward.
The one harrowing question about the 2018 NFL Draft is how close they came in the 2017 to drafting their much needed QBOF---losing out on the 2 QBs they loved, Pat Mahomes to the Chiefs via trade, and then agonizingly right in the spot one pick ahead of them, DeSean Watson to the Texans via trade. While it was nice last year to see the Cardinals win their last two games versus the Seahawks and the Rams---unfortunately that momentum did not carry over into this season---and it likely cost the Cardinals Mahomes or Watson (one of whom could have been the starter yesterday). Winning yesterday knocked the Cardinals further away from the top 10 which may behoove them to trade up for the QBOF they want---which will cost them valuable picks, if they can find a willing trade partner.
Unfortunately, the NFL rewards losing. Just as the Colts tanked for a year to be able to go from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck...the Giants are now going to be able to draft Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen to succeed Eli Manning. Ironically, just as Eli did---Rosen has already made it clear that he does not want to play for the Browns.
Recently there have been reports that the Cardinals were interested in talking with Sean McVay about the HC position last year if BA had to retire due to health issues. McVay is looking like a shoe-in for NFL Coach of the Year. The Rams look like they are going to be Super Bowl contenders for years to come. In addition to having a superb play caller in McVay, they have two of the top coordinators in the NFL in DC Wade Phillips and STC John Fassel.
Meanwhile in SF, QB Jimmy Garoppolo is the hottest QB in the NFL and is now 4-0 with the once hapless 49ers and 6-0 for his career.
This week the Cardinals travel up to Seattle to play the Seahawks and perennial superstar QB Russell Wilson in a meaningful game for them, as, thanks to their 21-12 road victory over the Cowboys yesterday, they are still in the playoff hunt. To ensure the relevance of the game, the NFL has moved the start of the Falcons vs. Panthers game to 4:25. And to ensure added drama and billboard attention, BA told his players after the game to go get ready for their "home game" in Seattle so that they could "go up there and kick their a*ses."