Unfazed by down year, Fitzgerald sees brighter days ahead for Cards
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Last season he would look in the mirror before games and, on occasion, at halftime and ask himself if he was doing everything possible to help his team win. Yet with each defeat and each performance that fell short of expectations that others had for him -- and more importantly that he had for himself -- Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald would return to the mirror and want to scream in frustration.
His eyes, however, would invariably lower to the "C" on the front of his jersey and he would exhale and step back before crossing over to that dark side where frustrated wideouts have been known to go.
"The 'C' is not put on your chest because the coach said, 'Hey, you're a captain today,'" Fitzgerald said Wednesday. "It's something that your teammates vote on. It means something. If you're going to carry the flag on the good days, you have to carry the flag on the bad days."
There was no shortage of bad days last season. The Cardinals went through four starting quarterbacks who combined to throw for 21 interceptions and only 11 touchdowns, including just four in the last 12 games. Sometimes the changes were due to injuries, but more times than not it was because of ineffective play. To say the group was awful would be an insult to awful. There were interceptions, lost fumbles and passes so far from their intended targets you needed GPS to find them.
Yet through it all Fitzgerald -- who finished with a career-low four touchdown catches and only 71 receptions overall, nearly 22 below his average for the previous five seasons and his third lowest total since entering the league as the No. 3 pick in the 2004 draft -- never said a demeaning word. Perhaps he knew he couldn't. He had a chance to leave Arizona as a free agent after the 2011 season but chose legacy -- an opportunity to finish his career where he started it -- and a record $120 million contract extension over a change of address.
Still, watching the Cardinals' quarterbacks struggle was painful at times. Fitzgerald had no one who could consistently get him the football, and Fitzgerald without the football is like Sinatra without his cool. He didn't lash out or run from the media, however. He opted instead to turn the spotlight on himself.
"The thing I saw, first and foremost, whether it was Ryan Lindley, Kevin Kolb or John Skelton -- whoever was taking snaps, they were already there watching tape when I got to the office each Wednesday at 6:30 a.m.," he said. "They were there watching tape, taking notes in meetings, busting their asses in practice every day to get better. It wasn't like they had just tanked it or weren't trying to improve. They were trying. We just unfortunately weren't able to get it done. That made me feel great that they were giving all they could to go out there and play well, and I needed to do the same. At times it was frustrating, but you can never allow that to affect you."
There is cause for Fitzgerald to sing this year. For the first time since gun-slinging Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season, he has a proven starting quarterback thanks to the offseason trade for Carson Palmer. Still, Fitzgerald has been relatively limited in his comments. Don't let his relative silence fool you, though. Fitzgerald is ecstatic. He sees not only creative play designs, but an opportunity to execute them because of Palmer, whose presence has relieved Fitzgerald of some leadership responsibilities.
"The most natural position for leadership is your quarterback, and Carson has kind of assumed that role for us, which is how it should be," Fitzgerald said. "His presence allows everybody to go back to doing what they do. I don't have to say much anymore. I can just get back to playing ball and not have to worry about breaking down the huddle or addressing the offense. At times, I had to do it last year, but now it's his thing. He's used to doing it. That's the way Kurt was. If something needed to be said, he would say it."
Another explanation for his low-key approach is that new coach Bruce Arians has put a lot more on his plate, demanding that Fitzgerald learn each of the three receiver positions to keep defenses from knowing where he'll line up. Arians is happy to challenge the face of the franchise.
"I want to push guys out of their comfort zone, including Larry," Arians said. "Larry's been back at the 'X' position his whole career, and I told him you can't sit back there anymore. You're going to play in the slot, you're going to play outside strong, you're going to learn routes to play in the middle of the field, because you're so big and strong you should dominate the middle of the field. He didn't like that at first, but I told him if you want 100 balls this is how you're going to get them in this offense."
Said Fitzgerald: "I had had success doing it one way, but coach was like, 'That's fine, but you're going to do it this way from here on out.' ... I played all three spots in the past, but the difference is they would give me five to 10 plays that we wanted to run from the other spots. I didn't have to know ALL the plays for the other positions; I just knew what I had to do on a particular play. Conceptually, I didn't have to know the offense."
As a younger player, Fitzgerald might have put up more of a fight when confronted with the changes. Unlike the quintessential pro people see today, he was immature and self-centered. He didn't push himself physically or mentally. It was all about him, and his focus was on trying to average 100 yards and a touchdown each game and securing a spot in the Pro Bowl.
"That's all I would ever think about -- typical diva kind of thing," he said.
His attitude began to change when he saw how Warner -- who ultimately would decide whether he got the ball or not -- carried himself on a daily basis, on and off the field. He also realized that his role with the team was changing. The organization was asking him to be more involved with fans and the media, something he had stiff-armed to that point.
No sooner would the team break the huddle in the locker room after a game than Fitzgerald was dressed and gone. Such was the case after a 37-31 loss to the 49ers in 2007. Fitzgerald had nine catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns in the game, but failed to make himself available to the media. He was fine with reporters being upset, until the team notified him that the league had fined him for his failure to speak.
"You want to get my attention, you go in my pocket," Fitzgerald said. "That will definitely get my attention. I think the fine was like $12,000. I talked to the NFL about it, and they said the fine was only going to increase from that point. They put their foot down with me. I just bit the bullet and kind of embraced it."
He didn't "embrace" his role as leader during the team's struggles the past two seasons, but he understood that teammates would follow his lead. So, "I wanted to make sure that the guys in my room knew that we were going to go out there every single day in practice and we're going to work on our craft. We're going to finish our routes when we catch the ball, we're going to block downfield, we're going to ... get better."
The Cardinals figure to be significantly better in the passing game this season, which should make the trips to the mirror more enjoyable for Fitzgerald.