Fresh off his 1,000th career catch, Larry Fitzgerald reflects on his first reception, and how many more he thinks he has left. Plus, readers react to the shakeup in this week’s Fine 15
It was a milestone weekend in the NFL, and we hardly noticed. The 11th (Larry Fitzgerald) and 12th (Jason Witten) players in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes hit the mark in two road games—Fitzgerald has an even 1,000 after an eight-reception day at St. Louis on Sunday, and Witten has 1,003 after catching five balls Monday night at Washington.
But I’m more interested in Fitzgerald’s first catch, which also happened at St. Louis.
It came on the first play of Fitzgerald’s NFL career. The quarterback for Arizona was Josh McCown. Behind McCown was Emmitt Smith, on the first play of the last season of his 15-year NFL career. The coach, also in his first game for Arizona, was Denny Green.
McCown handed to Smith. Fitzgerald—in the rare road uniform of white pants and white jersey with red piping and numbers—streaked downfield, covered by future Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams.
Smith stopped. He pitched it to McCown.
McCown threw a rainbow downfield, 37 yards past the line of scrimmage, and Fitzgerald leaped over Williams and the double-coverage guy, Jerametrius Butler, to come down with the ball.
“I remember everything about it,” Fitzgerald said, in the wake of his 1,000th. “You remember your first catch forever. When I got to the line, my heart was beating like it had never beaten before. Now, whenever I see Aeneas, and I see him pretty often, I always remind him he was the first.”
When I asked McCown about it, I was amazed at how crystal-clear his memory of the play was.
“One of my favorite memories ever,” said McCown, who, of course, now is on the Cleveland quarterback merry-go-round, out for the year with a broken collarbone.
McCown was 25 then. He had a job to win with the Cardinals, and coach Denny Green was giving him a legitimate shot to win it.
“It was opening day in St. Louis, when they were still led by Mike Martz and competing for NFC West titles,” McCown recalled Tuesday. “We had practiced the play all week, and Denny was excited about opening the season with a bang. We were committed to this plan, unless of course field position didn't allow. As it turned out we returned the opening kick to the 25 or so, but got a holding penalty so we weren't in the best field position. I don't think it was enough to change Coach Green’s mind on what was going to be the first play of a new era, and certainly the first reception of Larry’s career. I was a bit surprised at the call, but I remember Emmitt’s smile in the huddle. That gave me a ton of confidence. This was my first opening day start, so I had some nerves. The smile from Emmitt went a long way.
“The dome was rocking. I approached the line of scrimmage, against what had been a very stout Ram defense. As I got into the cadence I saw the safeties began to rotate—they were going to bring pressure. I knew with the noise there was no chance to check out of the play. Heck, my first opening day … I'm not sure I knew what to check to anyway. We snap the ball and they bring pressure. Emmitt’s one of the most intelligent players I've had the privilege of playing with. He takes the handoff. As he turns to flick the ball back to me, he pitches it and veers to his left and helps block a defender coming free. I catch the ball, give it a quick spin to try and get the laces right. And I throw it as far as I can. I remember as I let it go thinking that might not be far enough. But Larry, like he’s done a thousand other times now, went up over two defenders, one of which was Williams, and made the grab.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Man, that guy’s gonna be pretty good.’”
Fitzgerald: “I love those two guys. I love Josh like you wouldn’t believe—how hard he worked, and how easy he made it for me. He said to me before the game, ‘You’re gonna make a huge play for us.’ He was so confident about it, and so I was confident. And Emmitt—when I got to the Cardinals, I just followed him around. I did what he did. I ate what he ate. I learned to study film like he did. He taught me how to be a professional on the road. He taught me to wear one suit on the plane Saturday, then to pack another one and wear that one on Sunday.”
I love stories like that.
Fitzgerald’s 1,000th catch wasn’t as dramatic. In fact, it was downright pedestrian—a seven-yard flip to the left from Carson Palmer in a 20-3 game, in front of a crowd that has lost hope in St. Louis. What I find compelling about Fitzgerald is that as many times as the Cardinals have brought in receivers to begin to nudge him out the door, he comes back relentlessly post-Kurt Warner. He's thrived through the eras of Derek Anderson and Max Hall and Rich Bartel and John Skelton and Kevin Kolb and Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas and Drew Stanton … to Carson Palmer.
The results, through all the quarterbacks post-Warner, show why Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians have leaned so hard on Fitzgerald to keep their teams afloat when quarterback play was so sketchy. He led the Cardinals in receptions by 43 in 2010 (the first year after Warner), by 26 in 2011, by seven in 2012, by 17 in 2013, by 15 in 2014 … and this season, at 32, Fitzgerald has 91 receptions with four games to play.
He has 40 more catches than anyone else on this offensively explosive team.
Six weeks ago, when I was spending time with Carson Palmer for a story on how a quarterback absorbs a game plan, Palmer said to me: “I just trust Larry. I know exactly where he’s going to be. I know his habits. It’s so valuable to have someone you can trust the way I trust him.”
The two-part story I wrote on Palmer had a good chunk about Fitzgerald, and about how he abused Donte Whitner of the Browns on Pistol Strong Left Stack Act 6, Y Cross Divide, and about how Palmer’s throw was quite literally eight inches too far. But when you watched Fitzgerald lay out for the ball like it was the most important catch of his life, you understood why Arians loves him like he’s loved few receivers in his lifetime of coach and why Palmer feels such trust in him. They both know that if Fitzgerald doesn’t make the play, he’s going to exhaust himself fully trying, like he’s an undrafted free agent in the first NFL training camp of his life, just trying to impress the coaches enough that he can make the team.
“I still love it,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday. “I love coming in, seeing the game plan every Wednesday and seeing how we’re going to attack the other team that week. Everything about it, I love.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone playing long enough, with enough production, to catch Jerry Rice, who played until age 42 (he had a 92-catch season at 40, in Oakland) and amassed 1,549 receptions. And I’ve asked Fitzgerald about it four or five times over the years. I asked again Tuesday evening.
So: 550 catches to pass Rice. Is it in you?
“I signed a two-year deal this year,” he said. “I’m committed to this year and next. I don’t look too far into the future. Five hundred and some catches? From this point, that seems far, far, far away. I’m just into this week.”
That’s probably the attitude a great player should have.
Now for your email, which is heavy on reaction to my Fine 15:
* * *
MILE-HIGH TEAM TOO HIGH
I agree with your assessment that if Pittsburgh and New England met on a neutral field the Steelers would win. But using the same logic, how can you say the same about Denver? If it wasn't for the muffed punt and a few ghost pass interference and holding calls, New England should have beaten them. One thing you are forgetting is the Patriots defense, which held Philly to under 250 yards and only lost because of special-team gaffes. If anyone should be lower in the rankings it should be Denver because I guarantee you that Pittsburgh would beat them on a neutral field as well.
— Brian G, Canada
That’s possible. But I would also make this point. There are breaks in every football game: turnovers, muffed punts, interceptions. Brock Osweiler, in his second start in the NFL, played very competitively against a good Patriots defense. He did so knowing the quarterback on the other side of the field was not going to make many errors. In addition, Tom Brady did have Rob Gronkowski on the field long enough to throw him 10 passes that day. So it wasn’t like Brady was playing this game without his three biggest weapons. He was playing without two of them and then lost the third one in the second half of the game. So I don’t really buy the concept that today New England is better than Denver. New England may be better than Denver in January when the Patriots are healthy, but as I said in my opening to the column Tuesday, rankings should be a living, breathing organism, and they should change weekly during the season based on how teams are playing that week and not reliant on games that happened weeks ago. One other thing: The Broncos ran for 179 yards on the Patriots. I like the Patriots defense a lot. But when Dont’a Hightower went out of the lineup that day, New England’s run defense really suffered.
I appreciate the way you rank your teams—not based on record, but who would win on a neutral field. With that, I question the ranking of Carolina so high. Fun fact: The Panthers have played only one team with a winning record all season (Packers), and only one other team that was at least at .500 when they played (Eagles). On a neutral field, the Seahawks team that played Minnesota last week would destroy Carolina. Period. In fact, I believe Seattle would beat any team in the league right now.
One of the reasons I had a five-loss Seattle team so high in my rankings is because they are playing so well right now. But I would take issue with you saying that Seattle would destroy Carolina. Seattle and Carolina have met five times in the past four years and Seattle won the first four games by four, five, four, and 14 points. Carolina won this year at Seattle by four. For five straight games, neither team has destroyed the other. This year, with basically the same lineups that exist now, Carolina beat Seattle in Seattle. Check your fandom before you write emails like this.
CHIEFS SANS CHARLES
Don’t necessarily disagree with your ranking of Chiefs, just curious to know if you think that those “three opportune interceptions by Derek Carr” had anything to do with the defense? Or were they simply bad mistakes by a second-year quarterback? Also curious to know what kind of team Kansas City would currently have if Jamaal Charles were still healthy. Would they rely on him too much, as they have the last few years? Or is their current offense, with a bit more balance and a few more deep passes, better without Charles?
I think that is an excellent question. In some ways, I believe Andy Reid the play-caller is better when he relies on his quarterback to do more. He has demanded more out of Alex Smith since Jamaal Charles went down two months ago. And Smith has responded with eight interception-free games. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have efficiently scotch-taped together a good running game. It’s not great, but it gets the job done. And I’m bullish on the Chiefs defense. Whether they are great plays by Kansas City defense or dumb plays by Carr, Kansas City was fortunate that a young quarterback played impetuously in crunch time of an important game.
GIVE THE BENGALS THEIR DUE
Your ranking of Cincinnati in your Fine 15 column says more than just Cleveland is a horrible football team. The 37-3 shellacking of the Browns says that this Bengals team will not play down to lesser opponents or take for granted that they are at least going to the playoffs. Marvin Lewis has this team mentally prepared and disciplined, which is completely different from the Marvin Lewis teams of 2003 to 2013. Please give respect to that. The Browns may have been truly horrible, but the Bengals would have beaten them by less if they were a lesser team.
—Michael R., St. Louis
Good point. I still think the level of opposition contributed mightily to the final score.
THE COWBOYS WANT IN
The Cowboys beat Washington on their home field less than two hours before your rankings posted—but you’re saying Washington would do better in Wichita? We want to be number 19! LOL. That’s what this season has come to for us Cowboy fans!
I’m going to share a secret with you, Lawrence. I don’t really put a lot of thought into the teams I rank as number 19 and 20 in my Fine 15.
ON FRANK CLARK
Assuming you actually watched the game, did you see the job rookie Frank Clark did? You gave the Seahawks a lot of grief in your column for drafting him so high, due to his domestic violence history. But since being drafted, Clark has stayed out of trouble, unlike a lot of other players (Manziel, Aldon Smith, Greg Hardy, etc.) At what point do you give a guy like Clark a break? At what point do you recognize that anybody can make a mistake and learn from it, and should be given a second chance?
I have no idea whether he learned from this mistake or not. I saw quite a bit of this game, and I saw the impact that Frank Clark had on it, and I think he played very well. But if you think the media should not “give grief” and ask detailed and significant questions after the alleged incident that Clark had with a girlfriend in college, then I would vehemently disagree with you. Have you followed any of the stories involving Ray Rice and Greg Hardy and others who have been questioned and disciplined for domestic violence incidents? Journalists will always ask questions about serious incidents like this with players entering the draft.
I saw the quote from Dean Blandino regarding the quality of officiating this year. Although I agree on principle, that does not change the fact that these missed calls are huge and often game-changers. In the Ravens-Dolphins game a phantom offensive interference call cost the Ravens an early touchdown. This changed the entire complexion of the game moving forward, and the Ravens ultimately lost 15-13. Understanding that the referees are human, and that the vast majority of calls may even be correct, is there any movement to allow coaches to challenge penalties in much the same way they now challenge on-field calls?
—Dave R., Baldwin, Md.
I think the only solution that would be acceptable to all who want to expand replay would be that coaches could challenge any call on the field without increasing the number of challenges that a coach would get per game. if a coach wants to challenge a pass-interference call, let him. Just know that it doesn’t mean that he is going to have an unlimited amount of times that he can do that. Then there would be strategy in what call you would challenge and whether you would want to save a challenge for late in the fourth quarter when a single call could help determine the outcome of a tight game. I think eventually the NFL is going to come around on this, and I look forward to that day.
ON GUARANTEED CONTRACTS AND CONCUSSIONS
Until the Jeff Samardzijas of the NFL can get that kind of guarantee on their contracts, the league can say they are doing all they can to combat concussions, but it is all a lot of hot air. Ninety-nine percent of players are going to mask those concussion symptoms for fear of losing their jobs and taking care of themselves and their families. And that is so totally backwards. Guaranteed contracts aren’t the ultimate solution to a safer league, but it is the structure from which they can build that kind of future. What do you think?
—Shai P., Toronto
I think it is a really good idea. As Ben Roethlisberger pointed out last week, having job security and more tenure in the league is going to make a player more apt to self-report when he feels signs of a concussion. As much as teams would be opposed to this, I believe the more guarantees that are built into a contract, the more honest players would be in reporting symptoms of a concussion.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.