The Cardinals will have to start winning again to keep a smile on the face of Larry Fitzgerald.
The Pro Bowl receiver has watched Kurt Warner retire, taking with him the Cardinals' viability as a playoff contender. He has watched one of the team's most respected players, Anquan Boldin, leave via trade. He has watched some of the team's young foundation erode with Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle departing in free agency.
Losing those players and replacing them with more affordable alternatives has contributed to a plummeting payroll as NFL teams brace for a potential lockout. There's a growing sense, in my view, that the 2011 season will be pivotal to keeping Fitzgerald -- that the Cardinals need to make significant progress or risk becoming less attractive for Fitzgerald to continue his career in Arizona.
"I think you hit it right on the head," Fitzgerald said during an interview Wednesday from ESPN's Super Bowl headquarters. "I want to be on a winner."
Fitzgerald, 27, has always said he wants to finish his career with the Cardinals. His contract features a no-trade clause and language preventing Arizona from naming him its franchise player, however. Fitzgerald isn't going to stick around if the Cardinals remain on their current downward trajectory.
"I want to put myself in the best position to be able to hoist that Lombardi trophy," Fitzgerald said. "I would love to do that in Arizona. That is my goal, to retire as a Cardinal. They have treated me well. I love the state, but I want to win and that is really where my mind is."
Most players never wield the leverage Fitzgerald holds over Arizona. He's finishing the second monster contract of his career and figures to sign another one following the 2011 season, when his five-year deal voids with one year remaining. He's in prime position in that respect, although Fitzgerald projects a different view.
"I wouldn't call this a big spot," he said. "The last two years, I've been to the playoffs. That is where I want to be. Kurt retired and things just kind of went south. It is not a good position to be in. I do not want to have to go through things like this. I would love to be able to win and play in the playoffs year in and year out."
Fitzgerald was visiting the ESPN TV and radio sets to promote his involvement with Target stores and the NFL Players Association to renovate an elementary school library in Dallas. He also recently brought along Cardinals fans to the Pro Bowl, putting them up in his hotel and hanging out with them over dinner and otherwise.
"I just feel as professional athletes, we are given so much -- blessed and so fortunate to have the jobs that we have," Fitzgerald said. "It's our duty to give back to our communities. Kids look up to us, they admire what we do on the field, what we represent off the field and we owe it to our community to do what is best for it."