NFC West: Nate Washington

Quick look at award-winning Fitzgerald

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
12:23
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Larry Fitzgerald is the NFC's offensive player of the week after playing a key role in the Arizona Cardinals' 27-6 victory against Philadelphia.

Larry Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's key 37-yard scoring reception and the Cardinals' 3-0 record combined to make him a worthy choice even though his nine catches for 114 yards did not represent an off-the-charts statistical line by his elevated standards.

Somewhat amazingly, Fitzgerald never won the weekly NFC award during his first 116 career games. He has now won it twice in his past 11 games.

The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, ranks wide receivers by yardage totals for Week 3. Note that Fitzgerald caught all nine passes thrown his way.

Congrats to those of you who left Fitzgerald in your fantasy lineups following a slow first couple games. That list would include my 7-year-old son, but not my wife. Live and learn. The great ones produce eventually.

Related: Chris Brown's piece for Grantland.com on Fitzgerald's big play against the Eagles.

There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.

NFC West High Energy Player of the Week

November, 9, 2010
11/09/10
3:00
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NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 9.

I'd be OK renaming this award for the Arizona Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling if his name would fit in the headline.

Perhaps we could simply hyphenate the "High Energy" part in his honor.

[+] EnlargeLaRod Stephens-Howling
AP Photo/Andy BlenkushLaRod Stephens-Howling returned a kick 96 yards for a score in Sunday's loss at Minnesota.
Stephens-Howling would merit consideration even without the game-breaking kickoff returns he provides on occasion. The second-year running back has been a force on special-teams coverage units, putting his 5-foot-7 frame on the line against much larger men. He's also a threat on offense, having scored on a 30-yard run in Week 8.

A seventh-round draft choice from Pitt in 2009, Stephens-Howling broke a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Minnesota in Week 9, giving Arizona needed life right after the Vikings took a 7-0 lead. The Cardinals had lost the early momentum after Kerry Rhodes failed to protect the football during the final stages of an interception return, ultimately losing the ball as he approached the goal line for what should have been a Cardinals touchdown.

Stephens-Howling caught the kickoff just inside the Cardinals' left hash and cut to his right. He crossed the right hash at the 15, hit full stride inside the yard-line numbers near the 30 and then cut back toward the right hash as Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell flailed at him helplessly. There were key blocks -- safety Hamza Abdullah and linebacker O'Brien Schofield on Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley, defensive end Alan Branch on Vikings cornerback Chris Cook, fullback Jason Wright on Vikings cornerback Asher Allen, tackle Jeremy Bridges on Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, tight end Jim Dray on Vikings safety Husain Abdullah, Hamza's brother -- but the little guy with the football made them all look good.

"He’s obviously a dynamic player," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. "He does a lot of things very well for us. We all see the kickoff returns, but he does some other things for us in coverage and those aspects that are invaluable to us. We really have a good young player in LaRod."

Stephens-Howling has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and three in his career. Only Ollie Matson has more in franchise history (six between 1952 and 1958). Only Stephens-Howling, Matson and Les Goble have scored more than once on kickoff returns in the same Cardinals season. League-wide, Stephens-Howling is one of three players this season with multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns, joining New England’s Brandon Tate and Seattle’s Leon Washington.

Crabtree going the extra yard

December, 18, 2009
12/18/09
11:25
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The 49ers faced third-and-4 from their own 44 with less than 4 minutes remaining against Arizona in Week 14.

They were leading, 24-9, and trying to run time off the clock.

Quarterback Alex Smith took the shotgun snap from Eric Heitmann and looked left immediately. Receiver Michael Crabtree darted inside across the yard-line numbers from his spot wide to the left. Smith delivered the ball a little high. Crabtree caught it 2 yards short of the first-down marker, ducked and lunged forward for a 6-yard gain. The drive would continue.

The play marked the fifth time this season Crabtree has caught a pass short of the first-down marker and still converted on third down. Only three players have more than five conversions in these situations. Unlike Crabtree, those players did not miss the first five games during a contract dispute.

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