A top wideout once again has someone to throw him the ball

For established veterans such as Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preseason games are all about limiting risk: Get your timing down, then grab a seat on the bench. Yet there was Fitzgerald in the exhibition opener against the Raiders, making a spectacular one-handed grab along the sideline, then shoving off a defender before cutting back toward the middle of the field, where he might find more yards but also more tacklers.

The next week at training camp, Fitzgerald shook his head and laughed while recalling the play. It was such a rookie move, subjecting his body to potential injury in a game that meant nothing. At the same time it was a reminder of how excited and rejuvenated he feels following the team's acquisition of quarterback Kevin Kolb from the Eagles.

Arizona went through four signal-callers last season, and the only thing memorable about them was their ineptitude: Their combined 60.5 passer rating was 31st in the league. The season was particularly nightmarish for Fitzgerald, who had established himself as one of the league's elite receivers over the previous two years with Kurt Warner delivering the ball. Warner threw for 56 touchdowns in 2008 and '09; after he retired, Arizona's four quarterbacks combined for 10 last year.

"It was tough," says the 28-year-old Fitzgerald. "I know I wasn't the only one struggling through it, but my job is predicated on somebody else getting me the ball. I caught passes from Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel if you include the preseason, and it was difficult not knowing who was going to be back there. That uncertainty plays with you, because if you're a receiver and you beat a guy on a route and the ball's not there, there's no stat that says you won on that route. If your numbers are not where they should be, you're going to get the crooked eye."

Fitzgerald felt himself pressing to make a big play instead of letting one develop. "There were tough catches that I know I can make that I didn't make," Fitzgerald says, shaking his head a year later at the memory of a dropped pass in the end zone in a Monday-night game against the 49ers. "The level of difficulty was high, but I hold myself to the standard that if the ball touches my hands, I should catch it."

Now, though, there's no head-shaking. People within the organization can't remember Fitzgerald's being so happy and excited for a season—and not just because he recently signed an eight-year, $120 million extension that guarantees him $50 million. No, his optimism has to do with the arrival in July of Kolb, who signed a five-year extension, potentially worth $63 million, after being acquired for Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick.

Fitzgerald got to know the laid-back Texan during the off-season, when Kolb stayed at his Paradise City house for a week. They worked out together three times, and Fitzgerald laughs at the initial session, during which the two got a feel for each other. Early on, Fitzgerald lined up wide right and ran a slant over the middle. The ball shot through his fingers and landed well down the field. "When he releases the ball, you don't think that it's coming at you with the velocity that it has, but he has a live arm," says Fitzgerald. "The ball jumps off his hand."

Fitzgerald learned one other thing about the 27-year-old Kolb: "He's a football junkie. It's not a hobby for him. He wants to be great. I'm that same way, so it's great because he'll challenge you." Like he did in the preseason opener at Oakland. As the Cardinals prepared to break the huddle early in the first quarter, Kolb looked at Fitzgerald and told him, "I'm coming to you. Make a play for me." Fitzgerald was covered along the sideline, but Kolb lofted the pass in his direction anyway. That's when Fitzgerald reached up with his left hand and pinned the ball between his helmet and shoulder pads, shoved off the defender with his right hand and ran recklessly into the teeth of the defense.

"Last year was kind of a transition year," says Fitzgerald. "There was a lot of uncertainty about who was going to be and who wasn't going to be in at quarterback. Now I know that this is the guy I'll most likely end my career with. So there's a sense of urgency for me to get a good rapport with him and go out there and make plays for him."

Even in preseason games.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 31

QB KEVIN KOLB

ATT 189

COMP 115

PCT 60.8

YARDS 1,197

YD/ATT 6.33

TD 7

INT 7

RATING 76.1

RB BEANIE WELLS

ATT 116

YARDS 397

REC 5

TTD 2

FB ANTHONY SHERMAN (R)

ATT 4

YARDS 3

REC 11

TTD 1

WR LARRY FITZGERALD

REC 90

YARDS 1,137

AVG 12.6

TTD 6

WR ANDRE ROBERTS

REC 24

YARDS 307

AVG 12.8

TTD 2

TE TODD HEAP

REC 40

YARDS 599

AVG 15.0

TTD 5

LT LEVI BROWN

G 16

SACKS 7

HOLD 2

FALSE 3

LG DARYN COLLEDGE

G 16

SACKS 3

HOLD 1

FALSE 4

C LYLE SENDLEIN

G 16

SACKS 4½

HOLD 0

FALSE 2

RG REX HADNOT

G 11

SACKS 0

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RT BRANDON KEITH

G 9

SACKS 6½

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RB LAROD STEPHENS-HOWLING

ATT 23

YARDS 113

REC 16

TTD 1

WR EARLY DOUCET

ATT 26

YARDS 291

REC 11.2

TTD 1

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 29

DE CALAIS CAMPBELL

TACKLES 60

SACKS 6

INT 0

NT DAN WILLIAMS

TACKLES 38

SACKS 0

INT 0

DE DARNELL DOCKETT

TACKLES 52

SACKS 5

INT 0

LB CLARK HAGGANS

TACKLES 47

SACKS 5

INT 0

LB DARYL WASHINGTON

TACKLES 75

SACKS 1

INT 1

LB PARIS LENON

TACKLES 125

SACKS 2

INT 2

LB JOEY PORTER

TACKLES 50

SACKS 5

INT 0

CB A.J. JEFFERSON

TACKLES 0

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS ADRIAN WILSON

TACKLES 88

SACKS 2

INT 2

FS KERRY RHODES

TACKLES 90

SACKS 1

INT 4

CB PATRICK PETERSON (R)

TACKLES 42

SACKS 0

INT 0

DB RASHAD JOHNSON

TACKLES 32

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K JAY FEELY

FG 24

FGA 27

XP 29

PTS 101

P BEN GRAHAM

PUNTS 94

GROSS 43.4

NET 36.6

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 5--11

September

11 Carolina

18 at Washington

25 at Seattle

October

2 N.Y. Giants

9 at Minnesota

16 BYE

23 Pittsburgh

30 at Baltimore

November

6 St. Louis

13 at Philadelphia

20 at San Francisco

27 at St. Louis

December

4 Dallas

11 San Francisco

18 Cleveland

24 at Cincinnati (Sat)

January

1 Seattle

COACH: KEN WHISENHUNT

AGE: 49

FIFTH YEAR WITH THE CARDINALS (32--32)

Two years ago Whisenhunt became the second coach in the Super Bowl era (after Don Coryell) to take the Cardinals to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Whisenhunt is an offensive innovator who has had success when he's had a capable quarterback. It might not be this year, but if Kevin Kolb is as good as Arizona believes, Whisenhunt should be back in the postseason before long.

SPOTLIGHT

DAN WILLIAMS, Nosetackle

For a 3--4 scheme to work, it must include a stout noseguard who can command double teams and hold the point of attack. The Cardinals thought they were getting that last year when they selected Williams in the first round out of Tennessee. The 6'2" Williams struggled with weight and stamina issues as a rookie; he was benched in Week 4 for being too heavy. This year he reported to camp at 334 pounds—seven over his playing weight—and admitted he hadn't stayed in shape during the off-season. "I should have done more," he told The Arizona Republic. "Next year, I'll know the proper step and I'll put this behind me."

The coaches are trying to be patient because they know that the 24-year-old was hurt by the lockout. But unless Williams improves his work ethic and upper-body strength—which he's vowed to do—the job might not be his for long. The Cardinals, who were 30th against the run last year, have been impressed with David Carter, a sixth-round draft pick from UCLA, where he started only as a senior. That inexperience scared off several teams, but during training camp one NFC West rival was kicking himself for passing on the 6'5" 300-pounder, who has not only the agility to be effective on the interior but also the attitude. Williams should take note.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (KOLB)NEW DEAL To the delight of Cards receivers, Kolb arrived from Philadelphia to bring stability to a team that went through four quarterbacks last season. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (WHISENHUNT) PHOTOGENE LOWER/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (WILLIAMS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)