Larry Fitzgerald is playing like he did in his prime for a formidable Cardinals team, and he knows the time is now for another Super Bowl run. Plus, your questions on quarterback poise, draft positioning and more

By Peter King
September 23, 2015

This is a story of a football player aging, gracefully, and realizing he’s playing on borrowed time, and playing as if the aging process is actually moving in reverse.

How long has it been since we stopped mentioning Larry Fitzgerald when we make a list of the best receivers in football? Two years? Three? Maybe this burns him. I thought it might when I saw him after a preseason game in August, with the media crowd buzzing around second-year Cardinals phenom John Brown and nobody at Fitzgerald’s locker. Fitzgerald said, almost in passing, “I just come into the locker room every day, and I’m happy they’ve still got a locker for me.’’ Cute quote. But real? Or did it have some barbed wire in it?

“No, not at all,’’ Fitzgerald said one afternoon this week, in his car in Arizona, picking up his boys from school. “This is how I look at it: A long time ago I was a ballboy for the Vikings, growing up in Minnesota. I loved Cris Carter. I worshiped him. Then they draft Randy Moss. In football I learned you move on. You get younger and cheaper, and you can’t take things like this personally. Cris didn’t. I watched it. He knew. And so here, I understand getting younger at the position and getting guys with great skills, starting with Michael Floyd. Then you watch Coach [Bruce] Arians over the years, and how he’s always gotten guys to take the top off the defense—Emmanual Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis, and now John Brown and J.J. Nelson here. It helps us all.”

Fitzgerald is 32 now, still the key cog in the receiver group for the Cardinals even in his 12th season. At 30 he led Arizona receivers in targets and receptions. At 31 led the team in targets and receptions. At 32, though the season is young, he’s leading the Cards in targets (17) and receptions (14). He’s fifth in the league in receiving yards (199), and his three touchdowns are tied for the best among all wideouts. All three scores came on a back-to-the-future Sunday in Chicago in Week 2.

Fitzgerald still has the metronome ability to run with and past cornerbacks; you never see the man limp or slow down. “There’s a big benefit playing out west—it’s always warm, you’re always loose, you’re playing all the time on grass,’’ he said. Part of the reason his reputation slid three or four years ago was the gap in his career between Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer. From 2010 to 2012, with Derek Anderson and Kevin Kolb his primary passers, Fitzgerald caught just 51.6 percent of the balls thrown his way (241 of 467). His percentage of catches with Palmer—109 of 158, 69.0 percent—shows the difference a very good, accurate quarterback can make in the conversion of Fitzgerald’s targets to receptions.

“Quarterbacks are like fine wine,” he said. “They get better with age and experience. Look at all the quarterbacks playing so well into their 30s now. I am quite sure that Carson wasn’t the player in 2003 he is now. Plus, he had a lot going on with that football team in Cincinnati, and Chad [Johnson] had such a big personality. Here it’s so calm, so much all about football. No divas. Blue-collar. We’re out west, with not much media attention. It can be all about football.

Photo: David Banks/AP

“What I really like about Carson, and people wouldn’t see this on the outside, is how well he communicates everything with the receivers, right down to the smallest detail. He might say after I run a route, ‘Hey, I’d prefer you to take this different angle.’ By the time I run a route in a game, I know every little thing about that route and where the ball’s going to be, because I’ve discussed it with Carson.’’

The Cardinals look pretty formidable after two weeks, though those two games have come against the Saints and Bears, both winless. Arizona’s 79 points are most in the NFL. But Fitzgerald sounds like a coach—or a player who has listened to coaches speak cautiously in September—when you try to prod him about Arizona’s chances to get to a second Super Bowl in franchise history.

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“It’s really early to be talking about that stuff,” said Fitzgerald. “Last year we started 9-1, and then we hobbled to the playoffs. The year we made it to the Super Bowl, we weren’t the best team during the season—we just got hot at the right time. It really doesn’t matter how you play in September or October. I’ve thought the season really starts after Thanksgiving. We’ve just go to stay healthy and make sure we’re playing great football then.”

But Fitzgerald knows the reality of his situation. He’s 32. His quarterback turns 36 and his coach 63 this year. He can be as philosophical as he wants, but he also realizes the clock is ticking on his chances to ever get back to the Super Bowl. With the Seahawks struggling and the rest of the NFC either beat up already or eminently flawed, this year may be the Cardinals’ best chance to contend for a title. But they’ll have to be going strong late in the season to make it. They play Green Bay and Seattle in Weeks 16 and 17.

“I know I don’t have five more years to get to a Super Bowl,” he said. Desperation can be a strong motivator, and the Cardinals certainly have some of that.

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Now on to your email for the week:

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

DOES HE PASS THE ROMO TEST?

Your Tony Romo interview may have untied the Gordian Knot of quarterbacking: the ability to process information quickly. Maybe that’s the reason so many first-round can't-miss quarterbacks do miss. That would explain why so many guys with all the physical tools turn into mediocre quarterbacks. Do you think that in the pre-draft process, teams will try to find a way to test a quarterback's ability to process information quickly? The first team that came up with a reliable test would be, as Red Barber used to say, sitting in the catbird's seat.

— Joe Connor, Morris Plains, N.J.

Excellent, excellent question. Teams looking for quarterbacks try to do exactly that. You probably know that all draft prospects are administered a 50 question IQ/personality test, the Wonderlic. This has to be finished in 12 minutes, and it judges not only how smart someone is, but how quickly they can get through some time-consuming questions. In a similar way, one team I know puts players—and this works especially well with quarterbacks—under the kind of pressure they’ll face in a game. They do this by talking in a bit of a frantic voice and making the prospect answer quickly and clearly what exactly he would do in a certain situation. When quarterbacks get to the stage of in-person visits with teams, and workouts as well as interviews, teams try to throw a lot at a quarterback in a short time to see how much he retains and how quickly he can process that information when he’s on the field.

None of that is the same thing as what a quarterback faces in the two and a half seconds he has from the time he takes the snap to the time he releases a pass, and that gets to your point. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what you have in a quarterback as a thinker and processor of information until he’s in your building.

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PRESEASON PLAYING INCENTIVE

The key missing concept for the pre-season is that those games need some form of incentive—they need a long-term benefit for the teams playing these games.

My proposal: Teams who win preseason games earn an extra roster spot. Instead of the base 53-player roster, a team that goes 3-1 in the preseason would have 56 on its rosters, while a team that goes 0-4 only has its base 53 players.

From a team perspective, the benefit of additional roster spots would give coaches a huge incentive to playing starters longer, trying to win these games. Imagine how Dallas or Philadelphia would feel right now if they could have up to 57 players on the active roster. From the player's perspective, this is also a winning proposal. Rewarding teams with roster spots expands overall rosters, creating jobs for 64 additional players throughout the league.

— Chris H., Russellville, AR

Very interesting. I see one problem, which I would consider insurmountable. Right now, Adrian Peterson did not play in the preseason. There really is no difference if a player is trying hard in playing a preseason snap or a regular-season snap. So what you would be doing for some stalwarts—Peterson, J.J. Watt, Rob Gronkowski—is adding 60 more snaps per week because their team would be trying to win the game to get that extra roster spot. It would be good for fans, until a star player goes down.

When Jordy Nelson was lost for the season in August, I doubt many Packer fans, or coaches for that matter, would ever say the risk is worth it if we might get an extra roster spot. The one other issue is that, with such an incentive, the best teams would likely win in the preseason the way they do in the regular season. So I don’t know how it benefits Tampa Bay to be playing with a 53-man roster against a Patriots team with a 57-man roster.

I do think the concept of motivating teams to actually try to win in the preseason is a good one. I just think in a practical sense your idea has too many problems to implement.

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NEW ENGLAND WON THE 2013 DRAFT

Your analysis of the 2013 NFL draft was spot-on. However, you failed to mention the team that did not draft in the first round. That would be the New England Patriots. During the draft they traded their first-round pick to Minnesota for the Vikings second, third and fourth picks. The second-round pick from Minnesota turned out to be Jamie Collins, a potential pro-bowler. Kudos to Belichick.

— Steven Steinberg, Natick, MA

As usual, the smart teams figure out smart things to do in the draft.

Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre in 2007. (Photo: John Biever for Sports Illustrated)

THE DRAFT-POSITION DIFFERENCE

Interesting analysis of talent evaluation. One thing you may have overlooked in rating players selected at the bottom of the draft higher than those selected at the top—they're going to playoff teams, where they're not necessarily heralded as the franchise savior. If Aaron Rodgers had been drafted by the 49ers in 2005 and Alex Smith had had the luxury of sitting and learning behind Brett Favre, would their career arcs have been significantly different? Ultimately the player may not be as big a "bust" as it might appear on the surface. It might just be a case of elevated expectations coupled by a weak roster of teammates.

— David Smythe, Peachtree City, Ga.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened had the roles been reversed as you say. Rodgers to a weak 49ers team, which was coming off a 2-14 season, playing in Year One and Smith to Green Bay, playing in Year 4. There is absolutely no question that Alex Smith would have benefited by sitting for a couple of years—or even one year—which might have been the case had he gone to a good team at the bottom of round one that wasn’t pressured to play him immediately. Tom Brady told me after the Patriots’ second Super Bowl win that if he had to play right away, he might be on his third team by then. I believe the mental and physical talent of Rodgers eventually would have surfaced, but he might have had to go to a second team before it did. I believe teams that draft that quarterbacks in the first round should think about not playing those guys until they are absolutely ready. And your larger point is certainly valid—that being drafted later in the first round by a more established and accomplished team, changes the pressure and expectations on a young player.

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NEW ENGLAND’S MID-SEASON SWEET SPOT

Following the Patriots’ next home game, versus Jacksonville, and road trips to Dallas and Indianapolis, their schedule presents an oddity. After the October 18 game at Indianapolis, the Patriots will not have to travel more than an hour to any game until they play at Denver on November 29. From Week 7 to 11, the Patriots will play the Jets, Miami and Washington at home, then the Giants at the Meadowlands, and the Bills at home. While not technically a home game, the Meadowlands is a 45-minute flight away.

That's about 40 consecutive days “at home” in the middle of the season. Unless someone finds a way to derail the Patriots soon, Roger Goodell's worst nightmare may be about to unfold before his eyes.

— Terry Griffin

I’ve never found the Patriots to be a team very much affected by site of game. You’re right in saying that New England has an advantageous schedule this year. But those things tend to go in cycles anyway. Baltimore, for instance, has four western games among the first seven this year. That is a significant factor. I’m sure the Patriots like the way their schedule fell out this year, but when we look back at this season I don’t think Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft is going to say that they were helped significantly by traveling a limited number of miles.

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THE SELF-SELECTION PROBLEM

The stat that 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players who had their brains examined posthumously had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is alarming, but as you observe, it is hard to draw conclusions when the group tested was somewhat self-selected. I’m really surprised that neither the league nor the NFLPA has organized any sort of long-term study and gotten all players to agree to allow post-death brain examination. Are there efforts underway to make this a reality? It is such an important question, not only for football, but for all sports really (especially youth sports). I really hope the attention you have drawn to this will lead all involved to do the right thing and ensure we at least, as a society, put ourselves in a position to get the answer to this most important question.

There are leading voices among retired players and the union and medical researchers who are trying to have a significant number of players sign up to have their brains examined when they die. The issue here is that, even if a large number of players do agree to cooperate in a large-scale study, we are decades away from find the results and determining what they mean. If, say, a 35-year-old veteran agrees to have his brain tested upon death, we may not know the results for 45 years. It’s great if players agree to donate their brains, but I’m not sure it's going to provide a quick answer about the long-term effects of playing football.

In a case like this, I think Peter Landesman, the director of the upcoming “Concussion” movie, has it right: Parents have to make an adult decision about whether to allow their children to play football. Adults have to make an adult decision about whether they want to play football beyond the age of 18. Information about the health effects will continue to come out in dribs and drabs in the coming years, but it is obvious that playing football can be hazardous. We’re just not going to know how hazardous for a long time.

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