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Fitzgerald, Rodgers-Cromartie set the tone

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald(notes) is lined up on the right side of the offense, across from cornerback and Arizona Cardinals teammate Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes). Fitzgerald runs straight at Rodgers-Cromartie as the ball is snapped. Fitzgerald is running hard, but Rodgers-Cromartie isn't giving ground, knowing Fitzgerald will make a move at some point.

True to form, Fitzgerald is running an out pattern. Before he changes direction, he adds a little move. Call it the snowplow route. Fitzgerald, who at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds is a beast of a receiver, lowers his left shoulder into Rodgers-Cromartie's chest. The 6-2, 182-pound Rodgers-Cromartie isn't quite ready to dance around the move and goes flying onto his backside as Fitzgerald turns toward the sideline.

In most parts of the NFL, this would lead to some chippiness, perhaps even a stare down, particularly for players who live on the Diva Island inhabited by many receivers and corners.

Fitzgerald and Rodgers-Cromartie don't say a word. There's not even a hint of macho strutting by Fitzgerald or a whimper by Rodgers-Cromartie for a penalty. They simply line up for the next play and the duel continues.

"I don't ever take no offense to that," said Rodgers-Cromartie, whose footwork is the stuff of a Martha Graham/Bob Fosse dream. "Larry has been like that since I got here, and I know why he does it. He's trying to make me better and I'm trying to make him better."

In the drudgery that is training camp, where incremental preparation rarely measures up to the physical and emotional intensity of the season, the matchup of Fitzgerald against Rodgers-Cromartie is a refreshing exception. On display is perhaps the best receiver in the NFL against a third-year cornerback who could quickly move into the discussion with Darrelle Revis(notes) and Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) for top at that spot.

"You see stuff like that and sometimes you just look at it and enjoy it, kind of forget you're a coach" Arizona quarterbacks coach Chris Miller said. "You see those guys work so hard against each other because they know they're the best and they want to prove it every play."

Miller has a slightly different perspective on it. When he was a quarterback in Atlanta, he was teammates with wide receiver Andre Rison and cornerback Deion Sanders. Although Rison suffered through a troubled career, he was one of the best route runners in the league for most of it, a technician of the highest order.Likewise, Sanders was one of the great all-around athletes ever to play in the NFL and perhaps the greatest cover corner in the history of the league. Like Rodgers-Cromartie, Sanders "ran as fast as he wanted to," Miller said.

"You're talking about rare, gifted people," Miller said. "Those guys would go after it every day in practice, talk trash to each other, make each other better. Larry and Dominique are just like that."

More importantly, these two are among the big reasons why the Cardinals probably won't fade back into the oblivion where the franchise has existed for most of its 90 years in the NFL. For those of you who think the past two years were a blip, the Cardinals will be good in the long term even if they struggle this year.

There's a lot of rebuilding to be done this year. No team can lose its starting quarterback (Kurt Warner(notes)), best linebacker (Karlos Dansby(notes)), starting free safety (Antrel Rolle(notes)), a top-flight wide receiver (Anquan Boldin(notes)) and a solid defensive end (Bertrand Berry(notes)) without taking some steps backward.

The biggest question about this team is whether former first-round pick Matt Leinart(notes) is finally ready to be the man at quarterback. While Leinart, coach Ken Whisenhunt and some others talk a good game, the proof remains to be seen. Certainly, the Cardinals were concerned this offseason – they crossed their fingers Warner would return, took a look at trading for Donovan McNabb(notes) and considered signing Marc Bulger(notes).

Still, the Cardinals have put together a foundation of players that should keep them competitive for years. There's Fitzgerald, Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett(notes), safety Adrian Wilson(notes), running back Beanie Wells(notes) and a pretty solid offensive line. Mix that foundation with some-up-and-coming players – defensive end Calais Campbell(notes) and receivers Early Doucet(notes) and Steve Breaston(notes) – and a solid coaching staff, and there are the makings of a very nice team for years to come.

But Fitzgerald and Rodgers-Cromartie are clearly at the heart of that foundation. They're the type of athletes that change the X's and O's of the game, forcing opponents to deal with them.

Just as important, they are driven. Fitzgerald's goal is to be considered one of the greatest of all time. This offseason, he again brought former top receivers to his workouts with other players in Minnesota. Retired wideouts Cris Carter, Michael Irvin and, coincidentally, Rison were there. It was Rison's first trip to work with Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald came away impressed.

"I loved having 'Dre there because he brought something a little different," said Fitzgerald, who is entering his seventh season. "He brought a tenacity about route running that I really wasn't used to. He's all about getting to the top of your route hard, get the technical stuff down."

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Rodgers-Cromartie had 6 INTs in the '09 regular season and one in the playoffs vs. Green Bay.
(Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

Going against Rodgers-Cromartie, the technical stuff is a must. While Fitzgerald can overpower Rodgers-Cromartie, Rodgers-Cromartie can dance around him and then recover as needed. During the past couple years, Fitzgerald got in the habit of looking back earlier in his routes because Warner would get rid of the ball so fast. Now, when Fitzgerald does that, Rodgers-Cromartie will jump the route and take away a possible catch.

"You watch Larry and you see a guy who is always working on his craft, even after seven years," Miller said. "You see him now and he realizes, he has to come out like a rocket on his routes if he wants to beat DRC."

Or there are simply times when Rodgers-Cromartie can make up for whatever Fitzgerald does. He did that twice Sunday on plays that would have destroyed even very good cornerbacks. First, he cut underneath Fitzgerald on a deep post and deflected a pass that was right on target. Later, Fitzgerald got separation on a flag route, but the final result wasn't good.

"I had two steps on him, but he just exploded and made up the ground," Fitzgerald said of Rodgers-Cromartie, who deflected what was a decent pass from Leinart.

"Yeah, it was a decent pass. But we're looking for perfect," Miller said. "When you're playing against people as good as DRC, you better be perfect."

That's the goal for both Fitzgerald and Rodgers-Cromartie. Their exchange is the ultimate in professionalism. At times, Fitzgerald will ask Rodgers-Cromartie about things he might have done to give away the route.

"Larry is always trying to learn, so he asks me, 'What did I see?,' " Rodgers-Cromartie said.

Then there are other times when Fitzgerald lets his shoulder do the talking.

It's a pretty good lecture for Rodgers-Cromartie.