DAN BICKLEY

Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald deserves his storybook ending

Jan 18, 2021, 5:36 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2021, 11:37 am

(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)...

(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

(Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

The NFL offers wealth, fame, adulation and adrenaline rushes. It says nothing about happy endings.

You’re on your own, pal.

That was evident Sunday night in New Orleans, when Drew Brees couldn’t hide his dejection. It was surely the last game of his majestic career with the Saints. It was also one of the worst memories imaginable, and Brees will be haunted by those three interceptions and a third consecutive home playoff loss.

It was an unfair coda, a horrible ending for a true NFL legend. And it happens all the time in this league.

Somewhere, Larry Fitzgerald is paying attention. He’s also a player who has likely played his last NFL game. Like Brees, all that’s missing is the official announcement.

“You feel bad for every athlete, especially the great athletes, the guys that have done everything right and had such great careers, when they don’t necessarily get to end it on their terms, or their last season isn’t as successful as you would like it to be for those guys,” Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said.

“I remember I was calling a game in Dallas, that Monday Night game (against the Cowboys) this year, and I remember a third down situation. And I remember Andy Isabella, Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins on the field and Larry Fitzgerald was on the sidelines. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe we’re at this point.’”

Fitzgerald and Brees are very much alike. Both players define their city. Both are beloved in the community for their skill, their generosity, for connecting with the audience. Both are good guys and goodwill ambassadors for their team, their region and the entire NFL.

Like Brees, Fitzgerald also deserves a better ending.

He was targeted just 72 times this season, or 31 times fewer than his previous low with Arizona. He caught only one touchdown pass, and that came in Week 15. He never really connected with Kyler Murray, on or off the field. He is no longer the team’s No. 1 wide receiver. He was inactive due to injury for the last game of the season, watching from the sidelines.

“As a (former) teammate of his and a friend of his, it disappointed me,” Warner said. “Because I still know what he could bring to a team, and how successful he’s been down the stretch as he’s evolved into a different receiver.”

Warner was also a rarity. His last game in Arizona was possibly the greatest performance of his NFL career. He made a powerful statement at the very end, that he was as good as he’s ever been.

We also know Fitzgerald is the highly-ambitious type, filled with perpetual hunger, always seeking experiences and achievements. But after a late-career renaissance, he is no longer a threat to catch Jerry Rice for all-time receptions. A Super Bowl ring is all that’s missing, and at the very least, Fitzgerald’s impending decision is also a reflection on the current state of our NFL franchise.

The only way he sticks around is if he believes the Cardinals are close to a championship. And I’m guessing that’s not the case. He’s no longer feeling all that useful and probably not in the mood for a pay cut.

Like all great athletes, Fitzgerald surely yearns for another hair-raising, spine-tingling, transcendent moment, the kind that settles a great athlete’s soul and lulls them to sleep at night. Like when he scored the go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl, or the countless times a crowd in Glendale chanted his name with reverence. The great ones always crave one more standing ovation.

Difference is, Fitzgerald is smart enough to not make a big deal of his final stand, to not obsess over his last paragraph, to not go down that rabbit hole. He knows that staged sendoffs are for suckers. Same with those who try to goose their legacy.

Fitzgerald has lasted 17 years. He’s played 272 games. He’s learned the NFL always wins in the end and is capable of profound cruelty along the way.

Especially if you stick around too long, hunting for the perfect sunset.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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