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Thursday, January 8, 2009
Fitzgerald leaves Cardinals in awe


 
  Jeff Gross/Getty Images
  Larry Fitzgerald's ability to outleap defenders makes him especially dangerous in the red zone.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Even with short memories, NFL cornerbacks can't get Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald out of their heads. When they do, Fitzgerald gives them something else to remember him by.

Perhaps no receiver in the league renders tight coverage irrelevant as consistently and effectively as the Cardinals' No. 11. And when a jump-ball situation arises? Best of luck to ya.

The leaping grab Fitzgerald made for a 42-yard touchdown in the wild-card round against two Atlanta Falcons defenders will rank among the receiver's most memorable receptions for its importance, but not for level of difficulty. Not by Fitzgerald's standards. Not even close.

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Larry Fitzgerald says the Cardinals have always been disrespected and that's fine. The only way they can get out of the NFL's cellar is to keep winning and move on in the playoffs.

Anyone versed in fantasy football knows what Fitzgerald offers: an average of 92 receptions for 1,299 yards and more than nine touchdowns per season since 2005.

Anyone following the NFL should know Fitzgerald ranks among the game's most productive receivers. But watching him every play, every week, affords another level of appreciation. The playoffs are allowing the rest of the country to see what the Cardinals and their followers see every week.

Fitzgerald makes memorable plays so routinely that they stop being so memorable.

"I have played with Randy Moss and I have seen Randy Moss make some phenomenal catches -- phenomenal," said former Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Cleveland Browns cornerback Ralph Brown, now in his second season with Arizona. "But he didn't make them on a consistent basis like Larry does."

Like the time against San Francisco last season when the Cardinals regained possession at their own 45-yard line with 6 seconds remaining in the first half. Kneel-down time? Not a consideration. The Cardinals threw a short pass to Sean Morey for a 7-yard gain before quarterback Kurt Warner made one last throw for the end zone.

Fitzgerald rose above the crowd, made the catch, flipped the ball to the official and ran into the locker room without even celebrating.

"I really feel like if you are a DB and the ball goes up, your chances, unless he drops it, are very, very slim," Cardinals safety Matt Ware said.

Like the time Warner threw a ball toward the sideline and Fitzgerald pinned it against his helmet with one hand. Fitzgerald dragged both toes before stepping out of bounds.

"And the ball did not move," Brown said.

Brown could not remember the game in which Fitzgerald made the catch. Neither could I, and I've watched every Cardinals game. Neither could Brown's teammates nor head coach Ken Whisenhunt nor various team officials. But that is the point.

"I'm sure other people who don't see him play like we do probably think it's amazing," Cardinals safety Aaron Francisco said. "To us, it's just Larry."

When asked to name Fitzgerald's most memorable catches, teammates rattled off several -- all made in the last month. There was no need to consult the archives.

"I guarantee there are guys that are afraid and nervous when they see him come to their side and it's a passing down," Brown said.

 
  Chris Morrison/US Presswire
  Fitzgerald snagged 96 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 TDs during the regular season.

The video that players study does not lie. But it seems to stretch reality.

Like the time against Dallas in Week 6 this season when Warner, about to absorb a vicious hit, basically chucked the ball toward Fitzgerald nearly 40 yards downfield. Throwing the ball up for grabs in that situation -- on first down in the fourth quarter of a tie game -- would have qualified as a poor decision if the receiver were anyone other than Fitzgerald.

Anthony Henry, the Cowboys' 6-foot-1 cornerback, was in position to make a play. He was also defense witness number whatever.

"Sometimes, man, it hurts as a corner," said former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Rod Hood, now in his second season with Arizona, "because sometimes you are in the best position."

Like the time -- make that times, plural -- Fitzgerald used Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant as his personal prop. Trufant ranks among the most physically gifted cornerbacks in the league. He was a Pro Bowl starter after the 2007 season. He contained Randy Moss without much safety help during the Seahawks' game against the Patriots in Week 14 this season.

And yet Fitzgerald's stat line in two 2008 games against Seattle was gaudy enough to make a cornerback cry: 15 receptions for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Trufant demonstrated textbook coverage against several of tho
se receptions. He was right there for both touchdown passes during the Cardinals' 34-21 victory over Seattle in Week 17.

"Great corner," Brown said. "He is bigger than me. He is not as big as Larry, but he can jump, he can run just as fast, he was in good position on both of those passes. Larry just went up and got the ball."

Fitzgerald doesn't just catch the ball. He strangles it, as demonstrated in making a 16-yard reception on a third-and-8 play at Carolina in Week 8. He doesn't just fight for extra yardage. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Fitzgerald carries defenders on his back, extending the ball past the first-down marker without risking a fumble, as he did in making a 10-yard reception on fourth-and-8 against the New York Jets.

"Truthfully, as a cornerback, you can't fear nobody," Hood said. "I just believe that. But I think one of the things that you are mindful of is if the ball is put in the vicinity where Larry is at and you don't get your hand on it -- his hands are so strong."

  Seahawks vs. Cardinals highlights
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  Watch highlights from the Arizona Cardinals' 30-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
  

They key, Hood said, is trying to jam Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage, buying time for the defender to see the ball in the air.

"Because if I jump up blindly or if I let him catch the ball and try to break it out of his hands, there is almost a 90 percent chance he is going to catch the ball," Hood said.

The Cardinals are still talking about Fitzgerald's one-handed touchdown grab against Trufant in Week 17. The play jogged memories from the practice field for some.

Francisco was an Arizona rookie in 2005, Fitzgerald's second season. Fitzgerald had caught 58 passes in 2004, a figure that did not accurately convey what awaited Francisco in practice.

"I remember he caught a one-handed ball in the end zone over me and I was like, 'Man!' -- it was just unbelievable," Francisco said. "Now when we see it, that's an everyday thing. "

Fitzgerald's first play as an NFL receiver produced a 37-yard gain on a flea-flicker against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 12, 2004. The Cardinals defeated the Dolphins in Miami two months later for a rare East Coast victory after Fitzgerald made a 48-yard reception in traffic with 1:07 remaining, followed by the winning 2-yard touchdown grab as time expired.

With 426 receptions for 5,975 yards and 46 touchdowns in five NFL seasons, Fitzgerald has only gained momentum since that auspicious start. Lots of receivers put up impressive numbers. It's the manner in which Fitzgerald makes plays that separates him in our memory banks.

If the Panthers' Steve Smith is the best with the ball in his hands, Fitzgerald stands alone as the best with the ball in the air.

Francisco called Fitzgerald the best jump-ball catcher he's ever seen. Whisenhunt expressed appreciation for the way Fitzgerald has worked on route running and other details, areas that could easily suffer if Fitzgerald were content to subsist on his obvious natural gifts.

Hood said Fitzgerald can become unstoppable when a quarterback as accurate as Warner is on his game. Ware called Fitzgerald's hand-eye coordination "ridiculous" while noting that the spectacular plays result in part from the extra time Fitzgerald spends in practice.

"When I see those catches that he does," Brown said, "I don't know if there will be another player like him in my generation."