Ah...the circle of life...
The closest the Arizona Cardinals have ever come to winning a Super Bowl was riding the coattails of Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald throughout the stunning 2008 playoffs, which yielded the Cardinals their first NFC Championship when they beat the Eagles at home 32-25.
After the game, pundits were questioning whether Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb could ever “win the big game.” Hmmm...
Do yourself a favor —- go ahead and relive this historic moment for the franchise and for Cardinals’ fans:
Note: if you watched the 1st play on the video, take a look at Fitz’s crossing route on what looks to be a “mesh” play.
Note:that play versus the Eagles looks very similar to this legendary play two weeks later in the Cardinals’ first ever Super Bowl:
2:37 Cardinals 23 Steelers 20
Yet, alas, the Steelers would win The Lombardi Trophy on a tip toe catch by Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone on a pass from Ben Roethlisberger —- on a superb play call by Steelers’ OC Bruce Arians. Hmmm...
The last time the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald had a legitimate chance to win the Halas Trophy was in 2015 with Bruce Arians as head coach and Carson Palmer at QB, thanks in large part to this epic catch and run by Larry Legend (and his subsequent game-winning shovel pass TD):
“The right man, the right place, the right time.”
In the five years since that “All or Nothing” season for the Cardinals in 2015, Larry Fitzgerald has continued to chase all-time NFL receiving records with the hope of having yet another chance to showcase his talents as one of the most prolific playoff performers in the history of the NFL.
As we know, however, the Cardinals have not had a winning season since then. Arians retired following a 15-16-1 record in 2016-2017. Steve Wilks was one and done in 2018, following a 3-13 season.. And Kliff Kingsbury heads into his 3rd season with a record of 13-18-1, with the team heading in the right direction, but still considered underdogs to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers..
After Klngsbury’s first season, Larry Fitzgerald quickly announced his return in 2020 saying how much he enjoyed the team and its upward direction in 2019. After all, Larry was still “The Man” of the offense, while leading the team in targets (109), receptions (75), receiving yards (804) and TD catches (4).
Then, this past off-season came the Cardinals’ extraordinary trade for All Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins —- and suddenly, in the snap of a finger, Larry Fitzgerald was no longer The Man as WR1 in Arizona, for the first time in his 17 year career.
The 2020 season for Larry Fitzgerald, by his standards, was a major disappointment. His targets dropped from 109 to 72 (from #1 in WR targets in 2019 to #3 in 2020), his receptions fell from 75 to 54, his yards sank from 804 to 409 and his TDs plummeted from 4 to an all-time low of 1. Equally disappointing was Fitz’s career low in yards per catch at a paltry 7.6.
Despite his significant drop in production, Larry was still balling his heart out on the field. In the two minute drills he took it upon himself to sprint the ball back to the middle of the field in order to get the next play off asap. Whenever a teammate scored a TD, Larry was the first to rush over and give his teammate a hug and a flurry of drum pats on the helmet.
DeAndre Hopkins became The Man at WR1 in the Cardinals’ offense, leading the way with 160 targets, 115 receptions, 1,407 yards and 6 TDs. Knowing Larry, he was happy for DeAndre, but he was disappointed and very frustrated with his own lack of production.
In terms of personas, Larry’s and DeAndre’s are starkly different. DeAndre is not reluctant to toot his own horn, while Larry is too team oriented and modest to do that. When DeAndre scores TDs, he tends to run away from teammates instead of toward them. DeAndre feels that at 28 years old he’s entitled to miss Wednesday practices. At 28, Larry would never have asked for any days off, for the team’s sake and his own.
However, if it’s one thing we know about Larry Fitzgerald is that he does not expect his teammates to be like him. Nor would he ever demand that his teammates follow his lead. In essence, Larry does his best to accept and appreciate his teammates, regardless of what their tics and idiosyncrasies are. Larry even went to the ironic extent of offering his support for DeAndre’s practice habits when in a moment of jocularity he invoked the old Allen Iverson sound bite of “we talking’ ‘bout practice, man.”
But, another thing we know about Larry Fitzgerald is his belief in self-discipline and team discipline. No one on the team was like likely to feel more frustrated by the general lack of discipline than Fitz The Cardinals’ offense this past season incurred a whopping 64 penalties, the most in the NFL. Fitz committed only 2 of them. Nine of his teammates committed more.
Therefore, as Fitz enjoys playing in the Phoenix Waste Management golf tournament this weekend while mulling whether to play his 18th season in the NFL, perhaps for the first time in his career he is wondering whether he should sign a one year deal with a team that would give him a better chance to do what he has always said is his #1 goal: to help lead a team to a Super Bowl victory.
One can imagine that Fitz will be watching this Sunday’s Super Bowl with a mixture of fascination, nostalgia and regret. He will be excited for Bruce Arians and former teammates like Tyrann Matthieu. He will be the first to send a congratulatory text to Arians or Mathieu, depending on which team wins the game.
One can also imagine that Fitz might dream a little about what to would be like to play for Andy Reid and catch passes from Patrick Mahomes —- or what to would be like to reunite with BA and catch passes from Tom Brady —-to have yet another chance to sparkle under the biggest lights on the grandest of all stages —- where Fitz, in his limited opportunities, has been a star of stars.
After the game, Fitz is apt to find himself standing before the most tantalizing fork in the road of his NFL career. One has to wonder whether this time, Fitz will decide to choose the path that would appear the most likely to take in order to pursue his life-long dream of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. This would appear to be a once-ina-lifetime decision. As Robert Frost wrote so sagaciously in “The Road Not Taken”,
“Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
Here is what Larry said this week about the Cardinals:
“We’ve got a really solid nucleus, Very young. Got some dynamic playmakers on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The future is very bright here in Arizona. When you have a quarterback that can compete and do the things that our young quarterback can do it makes it very good in terms of playing into the playoffs and being able to have a chance. You look at the teams that make the playoffs year in and year out, most of the teams have really talented quarterbacks and if you have somebody that can throw it it gives you a great chance to have sustainable success.”
What’s your take on Larry’s statement?
The phrase that stands out the most to me is: “very young.”
Which is why Larry then said, “the future is very bright here in Arizona.”
But, is that future — now?
The juxtaposition of those remarks suggest that Larry realistically believes (as most of us do) that the Cardinals best chances for winning a Super Bowl are a year or two or three down the road.
It could be that if Larry is going to play another year (particularly in a more supportive role while accepting a modest salary), he is going to want to have a legitimate chance to pursue a Super Bowl championship. Therefore, it could be very tempting for Fitz to take a virtual conference call in March from Jason Licht, Bruce Arians and Tom Brady.
Knowing BA, he would do everything in his power to afford Fitz that chance. So would Jason Licht. Ditto for Tom Brady.
I wouldn’t begrudge Fitz that opportunity. Would you?
Larry Fitzgerald Career Playoff Stats:
9 games (5-4 record): 57 receptions, 942 yards, 16.5 yards per catch, 40 1st downs, 10 TDs, 104.7 yards per game.
Fitz has been trying to chase Jerry Rice’s all-time regular season receiving records, but Fitz knows he will never be able to match Rice’s playoff stats:
Jerry Rice Career Playoff Stats:
29 games: 151 receptions, 2,245 yards, 14.9 yards per catch, 51 1st downs, 22 TDs, 77.4 yards per game.
However, Fitz can take some satisfaction from having a higher yards per game average, and higher 1st down and TD percentages.
This is why Fitz has made a strong case to be considered one of the greatest playoff performers of all-time.
Talk about clutch —- look at Fitz’s 40 1st downs in 9 playoff games, while Rice had 51 in 29 games.
Michael Bidwill’s Own Fork in the Road:
The original plan when the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury and drafted Kyler Murray was to be a playoff and championship contender by year 3.
However, one of the major reasons why the Cardinals are very likely another year or two away from that goal has been the organization’s decision to invest in veteran players (many of whom under-performed) the past two years and its reluctance to get trade value for a veteran like Patrick Peterson (turning down a 1st round pick and WR Nelson Agholor from the Eagles last season).
Like Larry said, the talented nucleus of the team is “very young.”
What Michael Bidwill needs to do at this point is to commit to the young talent on the team, by adding more young talent and signing solid free agents who are just heading into their primes.
Bidwill will be very tempted to make it financially rewarding for Larry Fitzgerald to remain a Cardinal. It would hurt in many ways to see Larry sign with Jason Light, BA and the Bucs or any other team.
But, with limited cap space this season to work with, it could set the team’s championship goals back another year or two if the trend of committing double and triple slices of the salary cap pie to veteran players continues.
Classic case in point —- think of how the Terrell Suggs signing slowed the development of the team’s defense. Suggs was not athletic enough to play the SAM OLB in Vance Joseph’s 34. Thus, Joseph had to take Chandler Jones out of his most natural BANDIT OLB position and play him at SAM where Jones had to be used in pass coverage more than an NFL leading pass rusher should. Jones responded about as well as he could, but Suggs failed to do hold up his end of the bargain.
At the same time, the Cardinals were struggling at WILB because WILB was not a natural fit for Haason Reddick. Once Suggs was finally released and Vance Joseph realized that Reddick could be the answer at SAM, which would allow him to move Chandler Jones back to his optimal position, the defense started to show significant improvement —- which helped to spearhead the Cardinals late season back-to-back wins over the Browns and Seahawks.
Terrell Suggs was signed because of the potential sentimental value of finally having him play for the Cardinals after the Cardinals whiffed on drafting the local icon way back in 2003.
Then a year later, after Haason Reddick showed real promise at SAM, particularly with the stellar job he did versus Russell Wilson in the Cardinals’ stunning upset of the Seahawks late in the season, Steve Keim took Suggs’ $7M a year and gave it to another local veteran in Devon Kennard. But, Devon Kennard is not nearly as fast, agile and multi-talented at SAM as Hasson Reddick.
Sentimental signings have a way of backfiring and setting the team back because of the salary cap ramifications and the because of the coaches having to kick the development of the younger talent on the roster down the road.
It certainly didn't help 2018 3rd round pick Mason Cole to take a sophomore redshirt year behind C A.Q. Shipley, Shipley’s comeback story was inspiring, but it was another classic case where sentiment held back the development of the team’s youth.
While the Cardinals would never have an effort and commitment problem from Larry Fitzgerald, what Fitz does not help solve is the team’s lack of speed on offense. Thus, giving Fitz another meaty slice of the salary cap pie not only could prevent the team from adding the kind of younger, speedier talent it needs (like Curtis Samuel, for example), it also would prevent the younger players from getting sufficient snaps and targets because the coaches aren’t going to play them ahead of Fitz.
If the Cardinals were already legitimate playoffs and Super Bowl contenders and they could afford to hold on to Fitz, then it would be a win-win for everyone.
But, the Cardinals are not at that point yet, nor do they have the cap space to accommodate Fitz financially the way one would expect them to do with a player of his magnitude.
Fitz reiterated this week that the main reason to keep playing is to “keep chasing greatness.” Fitz was not specifically alluding to Jerry Rice’s record. Instead, Larry’s eyes potentially appear focused more than ever on the main prize, the shiny silvery luster of the Lombardi Trophy.
Hopefully Michael Bidwill will think twice about insulting Larry by asking him to take a hefty paycut. Therefore, it would be a difficult, but a proper time for Michael Bidwill to sit down with Larry and tell him what Larry already knows —- that the Cardinals aren’t quite yet on a direct path to the Super Bowl and therefore the organization would support him if he wanted to take that path with a team that already is.
Sometimes, it takes choosing and committing to the longer path in order to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For the Cardinals, that longer path is the one to take.
There are no short cuts to the Lombardi in the NFL.
Perhaps, for Larry Fitzgerald, a player who has never taken a short cut in his entire 17 year career, he can find the quickest path to the end zone in LA of Super Bowl LVI in year 18. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving player.