3 Arizona CARDINALS

An All-Pro receiver waits to see if someone—anyone—can get him the ball
September 05, 2010

LARRY FITZGERALD lined up to the far left of the formation during the Cardinals' preseason opener against the Texans on Aug. 14, leaned forward and burst off the line at the snap of the ball. He sprinted about 15 yards downfield and cut sharply toward the middle as quarterback Matt Leinart zipped a pass toward him.

But the ball was a bit too far in front of Fitzgerald, who had to reach up and out to get it. In hindsight it may have been the best "bad" ball Leinart has ever thrown, because it possibly saved Fitzgerald from a season-ending knee injury. The four-time Pro Bowl wideout's right cleat was off the turf when Houston safety Eugene Wilson came in low and delivered a crunching blow just above his right knee. There was some give in the joint on contact, but it resulted only in a sprained knee ligament instead of a torn one.

Questions linger about whether Fitzgerald will connect with Leinart as well as he did with the retired Kurt Warner, whose 56 touchdown passes over the past two seasons (23 to Fitzgerald) were fifth best in the league. Warner and Fitzgerald shared a special synergy and trust—Warner could count on Fitzgerald to be at a particular spot at a particular time, and Fitzgerald could count on Warner to deliver the ball in stride. Now what?

Fitzgerald invited Leinart, the 10th pick in the 2006 draft and Warner's backup for the last two years, to join him at his wideouts camp in Minnesota this off-season, but Leinart declined because he wanted to work out in the Los Angeles area and be closer to his son. "Everything will be fine," Leinart said during camp. "I've been throwing passes to Larry for five years." If only most of those passes had been completed somewhere besides on the practice field.

It says something about the greatness of Fitzgerald and the inexperience of Leinart that their relationship dominates discussions about the Cardinals' fortunes. Few teams endured as much personnel disruption during the off-season—Warner retired, linebacker Karlos Dansby and free safety Antrel Rolle left as free agents, and only one starter on the offensive line, center Lyle Sendlein, returns at the position he played last season—but what will determine the Cardinals' fate is how Fitzgerald will fare without Warner.

Fitzgerald caught 345 passes for 4,586 yards and 39 touchdowns from Warner over their 60 games together. The duo was particularly lethal in the postseason, when in six games Warner completed 40 passes for 676 yards and nine scores to Fitzgerald. And of course, Warner was the one feeding Fitzgerald on the wideout's record-setting playoff run two years ago.

"Can I be happy if my numbers drop off?" Fitzgerald says. "Yeah. What choice do I have? I'm at the point in my career where I've pretty much achieved all the personal accolades that one can aspire to. At this point I really just want to be on a team that's consistently in the playoffs."

It's possible Fitzgerald will continue to get his numbers, though in a different way. Warner relied on timing and intuition and a largely intermediate passing game that allowed receivers to run with the ball after the catch. But Leinart is more of a downfield passer. He has a stronger arm and is more willing to take chances.

The Cardinals believe that wrinkle will give them more opportunities to stretch defenses—if they can run the ball behind their revamped line as well as they hope. Beanie Wells came on strong at the end of his rookie season last year, and the 6'2", 228-pound back from Ohio State expects to build on his 2009 numbers (793 rushing yards, seven touchdowns). He will push starting back Tim Hightower, who appears leaner and hungry to keep his job.

Fitzgerald is on board with the boosted run game. "I don't think we'll be throwing the ball as much as we did when Kurt was here, because that was something he really excelled at," he says. "That was his strength—going no-huddle and using single-back packages. We will be a lot more balanced, which will create bigger plays down the field for receivers. If that's what it takes for us to win, I'm all for it."

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH KEN WHISENHUNT

OFFENSE

2009 RANK: 14

QB MATT LEINART

G 8

ATT 77

COMP 51

PCT 66.2

YARDS 435

TD 0

INT 3

RATING 64.6

RB TIM HIGHTOWER

G 16

ATT 143

YARDS 598

AVG 4.2

REC 63

YARDS 428

AVG 6.8

TTD 8

FB NEHEMIAH BROUGHTON*

G 2

ATT 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

REC 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

TTD 0

WR LARRY FITZGERALD

G 16

REC 97

YARDS 1,092

TTD 13

WR STEVE BREASTON

G 15

REC 55

YARDS 712

TTD 3

TE BEN PATRICK

G 9

REC 12

YARDS 146

TTD 2

LT LEVI BROWN

G 16

HT 6'6"

WT 324

LG ALAN FANECA

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 316

C LYLE SENDLEIN

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 309

RG REGGIE WELLS

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 314

RT BRANDON KEITH

G 4

HT 6'5"

WT 335

DEFENSE

2009 RANK: 20

DE CALAIS CAMPBELL

G 16

TACKLES 48

SACKS 7

INT 0

NT BRYAN ROBINSON

G 16

TACKLES 28

SACKS 1

INT 0

DT DARNELL DOCKETT

G 16

TACKLES 51

SACKS 7

INT 1

LB CLARK HAGGANS

G 16

TACKLES 74

SACKS 5

INT 0

LB GERALD HAYES

G 14

TACKLES 62

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB PARIS LENON

G 15

TACKLES 42

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB JOEY PORTER

G 14

TACKLES 41

SACKS 9

INT 0

CB DOMINIQUE RODGERS-CROMARTIE

G 16

TACKLES 50

SACKS 0

INT 6

FS KERRY RHODES

G 16

TACKLES 63

SACKS 0

INT 3

SS ADRIAN WILSON

G 16

TACKLES 74

SACKS 2

INT 5

CB GREG TOLER

G 13

TACKLES 11

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIAL TEAMS

P BEN GRAHAM

PUNTS 86

AVG 47.0

NET 40.6

AVG

K JAY FEELY

FG 30--36

XP 32--32

POINTS 122

PR ANDRE ROBERTS (R)

RET 14

AVG 15.5

TD 0

KR LAROD STEPHENS-HOWLING

RET 52

AVG 24.2

TD 1

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

*2006 stats

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 10--6

September

12 at St. Louis

19 at Atlanta

26 Oakland

October

3 at San Diego

10 New Orleans

17 BYE

24 at Seattle

31 Tampa Bay

November

7 at Minnesota

14 Seattle

21 at Kansas City

29 San Francisco (M)

December

5 St. Louis

12 Denver

19 at Carolina

25 Dallas (S)

January

2 at San Francisco

(M) Monday (S) Saturday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 32

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .445

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 4

ANALYSIS

For the team with the league's easiest schedule, the Cards have tough games early—trips to Atlanta and San Diego before a Week 5 home matchup against the defending champion Saints. Matt Leinart will have his chances to put a lock on the starting job: Arizona faces six of the bottom 10 defenses from last season. And the Cards have to be relieved not to have to travel to the Northeast.

SPOTLIGHT

Kerry Rhodes, Safety

JOINING A new team can be awkward, but for Rhodes, who came to the Cardinals from the Jets in a trade for draft picks last March, the transition from New York to Arizona has been particularly bumpy. Even before his first practice, the publicity-happy Rhodes—he's done modeling and has appeared in a Lady Gaga video—had to deal with questions about whether he was more interested in being a player or a playboy. Complicating matters was that the person asking the loudest was new teammate Darnell Dockett, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle and Cardinals captain.

Dockett not only wondered on Twitter whether Rhodes was putting in enough work in the off-season but also told Rhodes on the first day of training camp that earrings wouldn't fly on the field. Perhaps Dockett was being hard on Rhodes because Dockett was close to Antrel Rolle, the playmaking safety who left the Cardinals to sign as a free agent with the Giants. Or maybe Dockett is more concerned with winning games than winning friends.

A fourth-round pick of the Jets in 2005, Rhodes started every game in his first four seasons but fell out of favor with Rex Ryan last year and was briefly benched. If he's on his game—he's averaged 83 tackles a year and has 15 career interceptions—he and Cardinals veteran Adrian Wilson could form the league's best safety tandem. If Rhodes is distracted by his side interests, Arizona could have a problem. Dockett certainly will.

PHOTOMARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRESEEING RED Fitzgerald fed off Warner, with whom he had a sublime connection. PHOTOBOB ROSATO

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
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