A Pair of Aces

The Cards are stacked at wideout, with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin carrying Arizona toward a rare playoff berth while taking a joint run at history
November 24, 2008

AFTER THE Cardinals drafted him out of Florida State in the second round in 2003, Anquan Boldin heard all the talk about how wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies. His Arizona debut? Ten catches, 217 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener at Detroit. Boldin couldn't help but wonder what the fuss was about.

He stopped wondering the next Sunday. When Boldin jogged to his position in the slot, he saw a Seahawks linebacker immediately across from him, a cornerback crouching five yards behind the 'backer and a safety sitting over the top. Boldin caught eight passes, but they went for only 62 total yards, and there were no trips across the goal line.

"I'm looking at it like, Man, y'all really don't want me to touch the ball today," Boldin recalls. "When you see things like that, you appreciate having another receiver on the team who can make plays. I've never been against having a guy on the other side, because the more talent you have on the field, the easier it makes your job."

Boldin's cavalry arrived the next year, when the Cardinals drafted Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt with the No. 3 pick. Since then, the two have not only established themselves as individual stars, with a pair of Pro Bowl appearances each, but they've also joined forces to become the best pass-catching tandem in the league—with the potential for even greater things. In their first four seasons together Boldin and Fitzgerald combined for 642 receptions. That's more than such legendary duos as the Steelers' Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (227), the 49ers' Jerry Rice and John Taylor (443) and the Rams' Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt (613). Only Cris Carter and Randy Moss (645) of the Vikings had more.

But catches alone do not determine greatness. Boldin, 28, and Fitzgerald, 25, lead the league with 129 combined receptions, but they need to showcase their skills when it matters most: the playoffs. On Sunday in Seattle the two took their biggest step yet toward their first postseason appearance, teaming for 23 catches and 337 yards in a 26--20 victory that pushed the Cardinals to 7--3 for the first time since 1977, when the franchise was in St. Louis.

Quarterback Kurt Warner found Boldin 13 times for 186 yards and Fitzgerald 10 times for 151, their most productive combined day ever and only the third time two teammates each had at least 10 catches and 150 yards in a game. Warner continued to make his case for league MVP, finishing with 32 completions in 44 attempts for 395 yards and a touchdown, but he's getting plenty of help from the acrobatic grabs and after-the-catch athleticism of his receivers. "Boldin will run over you, he'll run through you, he'll run around you," says Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "He's almost like a back who has speed playing wide receiver. And Fitzgerald is just a beast."

For all their physical similarities—Boldin is 6'1" and 217 pounds and Fitzgerald 6'3" and 220—their games are substantially different. Consider two plays from last Sunday:

On second-and-one from the Cards' 20 in the first quarter, Warner took a snap, immediately turned to his left and fired a quick pass outside to Boldin. The play was designed merely to move the chains, but the muscular Boldin isn't one to settle. He snatched the ball without letting it touch his body, burst through cornerback Kelly Jennings's attempted tackle and headed down the sideline. There he sidestepped safety Brian Russell en route to a 45-yard gain that was the longest of the afternoon. The Cardinals' philosophy with Boldin: Zip the pass to him as quickly as possible, and let him use his power to pile up yards.

Early in the following quarter Arizona had first down at its five. Warner noticed Seattle was playing Fitzgerald one-on-one on the outside. Fitzgerald hadn't been the first option when Arizona broke the huddle, but he was when Warner got to the line. The quarterback took a short drop and lofted a pass down the sideline. Fitzgerald uncoiled skyward over the defensive back, like the balletic Swann pulling off one of his Super Bowl grabs, for a 33-yard gain. The Cardinals' philosophy with Fitzgerald: Get the ball to him outside the numbers, and let him exploit his singular blend of size, hands and finesse. "Anytime we get Larry in a one-on-one situation," says Warner, "he becomes the primary."

The players are also distinctive in how they view their jobs. Fitzgerald will tell you he's a receiver and his goal is to be the best of all time, something Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley believes is possible if he expands his game beyond perimeter catches. And Boldin? He almost scoffs at being called a receiver. "I'm a football player," says Boldin, who also has seven carries for 60 yards, running out of Arizona's version of the Wildcat. "Receiver is something they call me just because they have to put something down on paper."

IN RECENT years wide receivers have come to be known for their outsized egos and the mouths to match. Think Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens, players with whom Haley worked during his time as a coach with the Jets and the Cowboys, respectively. There is none of that with Boldin and Fitzgerald. When the former was upset about his contract in the off-season, for instance, he spoke out one time in training camp, promised not to let it affect his performance and hasn't raised the issue publicly since. He ranks sixth in the league in catches (62), seventh in yards (792) and first in touchdown receptions (10). Fitzgerald is fourth in catches (67), second in yards (939) and tied for third in TDs (six).

"Both those guys look at themselves as being Number 1s, but you never hear them complaining about not getting enough touches," says Rice. "I don't know if Arizona is going to be able to accommodate both of them in the future, but right now those guys are putting the best interest of the team first."

Part of the credit goes to Haley, who spent 11 seasons coaching NFL receivers and learned from working with players such as Johnson and Owens. One lesson was the importance of getting his receivers involved in the game early. Another was to be honest with them about the game plan. When he's spelling out a route, Haley makes a point of explaining why the wideout is running it and how it will set up future plays for him and his teammates. The last thing Haley wants is a player who expects one thing and gets something else. That's when problems arise.

The Cardinals' duo will never publicly demand the ball because it's in neither of their natures. Fitzgerald, the son of a Minneapolis sportswriter, learned about professionalism watching Carter from the sideline as a ball boy for the Vikings. Boldin, who grew up in Pahokee, Fla., received an education in selflessness at Florida State, where he had to share the load with Peter Warrick, Javon Walker and Laveranues Coles. When the Cards drafted Fitzgerald with two years of his eligibility remaining, Boldin—who'd set an NFL rookie record with 101 receptions—welcomed him with open arms.

"Q could have been like, This is some b.s.—I ball out last year, and you do this? You're going to draft this guy, bring him in, pay him all this money?" says Fitzgerald. "Immediately it could have been the start of some mess, but Q chose not to do that. He took me under his wing, brought me over to his house. We watched Monday Night Football together. His girlfriend would cook meals, and I'd play with his son. We started off on the right foot."

With Boldin sidelined for the first six games because of knee surgery, however, the weight of the passing game fell on the rookie. While Fitzgerald was up for the challenge, he lacked the know-how. Being a pro and knowing what it takes to be a pro, he learned, were two different things.

Fitzgerald led the Cardinals with 58 catches for 780 yards that year and tied for the NFC rookie lead with eight touchdown receptions, but there was work to be done. When he returned for his second season, he was nine pounds lighter and more explosive out of his breaks. He also was more intense in practice and more excited during games because of the arrival of two-time MVP Warner to replace Josh McCown.

Fitzgerald earned Pro Bowl honors in two of the next three years, and last off-season he signed a four-year, $40 million deal, making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has used the contract to motivate Fitzgerald, telling him that there are expectations that come with all those zeroes. Fitzgerald politely disagrees with the notion that salary should affect his attitude. He says he'd play and practice the same if he were making $1 million a year.

DON'T MISUNDERSTAND, though. Fitzgerald has the heart of an assassin when it comes to business off the field, just as he does when taking care of business on it. He had no problem using the hammer during his contract negotiations, seeking a deal that would redefine the financial pecking order at his position even as some told him such a contract would hurt the Cardinals' ability to add depth and ultimately affect their long-term prospects.

Both Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves say the organization is committed to a new deal for Boldin, who has two more years remaining on a pact that would pay him $2.75 million in 2009 and $3 million in '10. "We've always said we want to identify our core players and keep them with us, and he's definitely a core guy," says Graves. "We haven't established a timetable [for getting something done], but we definitely plan to address it again."

Arizona must also account for Warner, who's scheduled to become a free agent after the season. At 37 he appears to have turned back the clock to his Super Bowl days with the Rams: He leads the league in passer rating (105.5) and completion percentage (a phenomenal 70.9), and is second in passing yards (3,155) and touchdowns (20). Now the Cardinals must decide how high they're willing to go when they have their 2006 first-round pick, Matt Leinart, serving as a backup. Insiders say the organization will make a "fair" offer to Warner, but the Cards hope he'll take slightly less than market value for an MVP-caliber quarterback to stay with an ascending team that has two dominant wideouts (and a promising third option in second-year player Steve Breaston, who has 48 catches this season). If that happens, it could facilitate a new deal for Boldin, who reached 400 receptions quicker than any other player in NFL history, and ensure that he and Fitzgerald remain together through the end of the decade. If so, they could rewrite the record books.

"I don't know if we've accomplished enough yet to be considered among the greatest in history," says Fitzgerald. "But if we continue on the pace we're on, a couple of years down the road we might be compared to some of those people. A lot has to do with winning playoff games, playing deep into the postseason and getting some hardware. When you do that, you solidify yourselves as great players."

Says Haley, "Larry has so much untapped ability, and Q has proved that when he's healthy, he's unmatched. So to me it comes down to two things: Larry reaching his full potential and Anquan just being able to stay healthy and play the game he plays. Because when he does, the two of them become unstoppable."

Fitzgerald says his goal is to be the best of all time. Boldin? He almost scoffs at being called a receiver: "I'M A FOOTBALL PLAYER."

PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughLIVING ON THE EDGE The rangy Fitzgerald does his best work close to the sidelines. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (FITZGERALD)[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughA JOB FOR Q The muscle-bound Boldin either blazes by tacklers or makes them pay. PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughFLYING With Arizona off to its best start since '77, Boldin (top) and Fitzgerald may finally play in January. PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough[See caption above]