As the Cardinals prepared for last season’s NFC Wild Card game at Carolina, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was also planning for life beyond the franchise that drafted him in 2004.
Fitzgerald had a feeling he wouldn’t be back in 2015 because the Cardinals had signed him to an eight-year, $120 million deal in 2011 and he was due to carry an unworkable $23.6 million cap number this season — one that would account for almost 17 percent of the $143.28 million salary cap.
There was also the matter of Fitzgerald’s role in the offense. The erstwhile deep threat was a slot guy instead — a chain mover whose role in the offense wasn’t what he hoped it would be.
When Fitzgerald agreed to what GM Steve Keim said was “essentially a two-year deal” with $22 million in guaranteed money in February, his relationship with team president Michael Bidwill was cited as a major factor. Even then, analysts wondered if the Cardinals had paid too much money for a now-32-year-old receiver who hadn’t topped 1,000 yards receiving in each of the past three seasons.
On Sunday in Chicago, Fitzgerald offered his retort. The face of the franchise hauled in eight passes for 112 yards and three touchdowns, even though he wasn’t targeted in the first quarter. It was the first regular season game in Fitzgerald’s career in which he had three receiving touchdowns (he also had three in the 2008 NFC Championship game against Philadelphia).
Through two games of the NFL season, Old Man Cardinal is averaging seven receptions, 99.5 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game, and he’s back among the NFL’s receiving leaders.
“I don’t need any motivation at this point in my career. What I am capable of doing, what I have done, it speaks for itself,” Fitzgerald said. “At this point I’m just so happy to be on a team that has a chance to do something special.”
Fitzgerald’s first touchdown catch went for eight yards and was the 90th of his career, making him just the 10th player in NFL history with 12,000-plus receiving yards and 90-plus receiving TDs in a career.
His second TD reception produced his 15th career multi-touchdown game and his first since Nov. 23, 2013 against Indianapolis. The 28-yard, over-the-shoulder catch on a third-quarter flea flicker was a study in concentration. Bears linebacker Shea McClellin was draped all over him and actually dragged Fitzgerald’s left shoulder down on a play that somehow wasn’t flagged for pass interference.
Fitz’s final act was one for the highlights. After catching a pass in the flat, he stiff-armed Bears cornerback Terrance Mitchell onto his back and stretched his other arm straight out to get the ball over the goal line.
“Might have to put him at running back,” coach Bruce Arians quipped. “I thought Larry played really well.”
When he got up after the score, Fitzgerald gave former teammate and current Bears safety Antrel Rolle, who was trailing the play, a big hug. It was everything that defines Fitzgerald in one simple play: the vice-like hands, the incredible strength, the determination and a personality that has made him one of the most likeable players in the NFL throughout his career.
Through two weeks of the NFL season, Fitzgerald hasn’t lost any of those gifts and the Cardinals fans in attendance at Soldier Field let him know it with chants of “Larry! Larry!”
“I know that if my number is called, I’m going to go out there and give it my best and make my plays,” Fitzgerald said.