PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz.– As a man who has risen to the top of his field by making game-changing catches, Larry Fitzgerald(notes) understands the equal and opposite importance of preventing opponents from shredding his team's secondary. For that reason, the Arizona Cardinals' All-Pro wideout plans to give an exceptionally warm reception to the team's newest acquisition, cornerback Patrick Peterson(notes).
Reacting to the Cards' decision to select the former LSU player with the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, Fitzgerald paraded through the open-air living room of his suburban Phoenix home, smiled at Peterson's image on the flat-screen TV mounted inside bricks above a fireplace and pumped his fist in celebration.
"He's a can't-miss player, a real difference-maker, and that's exciting," Fitzgerald said. "Things have changed in this league. It's a receiver-quarterback game now. That's the name of the game and the wave of the future. We have to go against Sam Bradford(notes) twice a season. Tom Brady(notes), Drew Brees(notes), Matt Ryan(notes), Aaron Rodgers(notes), Peyton Manning(notes) – the teams that have those guys are the teams that'll be in the thick of it every year. And you can't match up with these teams if you can't stop them outside."
Disappointing QB play contributed to a down 2010 season for Fitzgerald.
At that moment, the sight of a sincerely happy Fitzgerald would have helped quell the fears of his employers and Cardinals fans alike: The 27-year-old receiver's contract is set to expire after this season, and it has been speculated that another desultory campaign like the one he endured in 2010 would ensure his flight from the desert. Fitzgerald's departure wouldn't quite be as devastating to Arizona as LeBron James' Decision was to northeast Ohio, but it would be a major blow.
While acknowledging his frustration with Arizona's 5-11 record in 2010, the organization's failure to retain several high-profile players from its unlikely Super Bowl run two seasons earlier ("I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't tough for me," he admitted) and, most glaringly, its struggles at the quarterback position following Kurt Warner's(notes) retirement, Fitzgerald said reports of his imminent departure have been greatly exaggerated.
"I don't have any plan of doing that," he insisted a few minutes after the first round's completion. "They don't have to prove anything to me. I know Whiz [coach Ken Whisenhunt] wants to win. I know our organization wants to win. They're going to do what they can to make sure that happens."
Drafting Peterson, who'll be paired with '08 first-rounder Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) to form a potentially formidable cornerback tandem, was a positive move in that direction from Fitzgerald's perspective. The other two prospective teammates he'd coveted, pass-rushing linebacker Von Miller(notes) and wideout A.J. Green(notes), had been taken off the board by Denver (second overall) and Cincinnati (fourth) respectively, and Fitzgerald wasn't overly enthused by the possibility that Arizona would select quarterback Blaine Gabbert(notes), hailed by most pundits as the top remaining passer after Cam Newton(notes) went No. 1 overall to Carolina.
"When I was looking at the [possible] picks, I thought Miller, Green and Peterson were the best available players, and the can't-miss guys," Fitzgerald said. "I didn't see a can't-miss quarterback. A can't-miss quarterback is a guy like Andrew Luck, a guy who's got every single intangible you could ever want … like Matt Ryan.
"If you miss at corner, you can plug in someone else and play through it. If you miss at that position [quarterback], it'll set your franchise back years, man."
If it sounds like Fitzgerald is experiencing post-traumatic stress from the inglorious end of Matt Leinart's(notes) Cardinals career last September – and a season's worth of shoddy quarterback play from veteran Derek Anderson(notes) and rookies Max Hall(notes) and John Skelton(notes) – that would probably be an accurate assessment.
Drafted 10th overall by Arizona in 2006 following a decorated collegiate career that included a Heisman Trophy and national championship at USC, Leinart became a starter during his rookie season but eventually lost his job to Warner, who bolstered his Hall of Fame credentials. In February of 2009, Warner and Fitzgerald teamed up on a dramatic touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIII and had the Cardinals within 35 seconds of a championship.
Fitzgerald, fresh off one of the greatest postseasons in NFL history and clearly the game's preeminent receiver, figured he'd be in for a long run of sustained success. "I thought things would stay status quo," he said. "And it didn't go that way. That Super Bowl seems like a long time ago – about 10 years, it feels like."
The trouble began when Warner retired after Arizona's '09 divisional-round playoff defeat to the Saints, and the team lost three other Pro Bowl players via trade [wideout Anquan Boldin(notes)] and free agency [linebacker Karlos Dansby(notes) and safety Antrel Rolle(notes)].
"Everybody knows how great Kurt was, and knows what he meant to us – not only to our team but to our city," Fitzgerald said. "We had a plan for it, though. Matt was our guy. You would think if you had a guy and groomed him for three years … We drafted Matt in 2006 with the 10th overall pick. That's a centerpiece-of-the-franchise move right there. You expect a guy like that to take you to the playoffs, to give you years of good play. You can miss at a lot of positions. That one kills you."
The Cards' quarterback issues killed Fitzgerald's fantasy value in 2010: Only six of his 90 receptions were touchdowns, and only one went for 40 yards or greater. He's hoping that Arizona acquires an experienced player to stabilize the position via a trade or free agency, one of many reasons he's eager for the NFL to declare the start of the "league year" in the wake of U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson's ruling earlier this week that the owners must end their lockout of players. (Teams will begin conducting some offseason business on Friday, but the league has not yet set a timetable for the start of free agency.)
Reacting to one of the many occasions on which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was booed atop the Radio City Music Hall lectern Thursday night, Fitzgerald said he could understand the fans' frustration with the ongoing labor battle. "No question," he said. "We're frustrated, too. I'm glad we're back in the swing of things, that we're able to have the draft, and I hope we can get free agency started and try to address some needs. It'll be good to start seeing the guys again."
As to when he believed free agency and trades should be allowed, Fitzgerald said, "Today, absolutely. Isn't that what the judge ordered?"
Peterson was also a threat in the return game at LSU.
For now, however, Arizona is prohibited from going after a veteran quarterback such as Ravens backup Marc Bulger(notes), Eagles backup Kevin Kolb(notes) or longtime Seahawks starter Matt Hasselbeck(notes). Given all the uncertainty – the lockout could resume indefinitely if the NFL persuades the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Nelson's decision – the Cardinals, who own the sixth pick (38th overall) in the second round, might be tempted to take a quarterback like Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, TCU's Andy Dalton or Nevada's Colin Kaepernick.
Whatever happens on Friday, Saturday and beyond, it was clear that Fitzgerald was thrilled with Thursday's developments. For one thing, he approved of the organization's apparent decision to take the best available player, rather than trying to fill a perceived need.
"Whiz told me he learned his lesson with Adrian Peterson," Fitzgerald said, referring to Arizona's decision to select tackle Levi Brown, rather than the future All-Pro halfback, with the fifth overall pick in '07. "If there's an incredible athlete there, you take him, even if you don't have a need. You find a place for him. It's like the Vikings with Randy Moss(notes) [in 1998]. They had two star receivers in Cris Carter and Jake Reed; they didn't need Randy. But he was the best player on their board, and it changed their team."
Fitzgerald hopes that Patrick Peterson's presence can provide a boost to the Cardinals on defense and special teams. "He addresses two needs immediately," Fitzgerald said. "He's a good lockdown corner, and he returns punts. He's a tough, hard-nosed guy from the best conference in the country. He's the best player at his position. And he's a good kid. You never hear anything but good things about him.
"Man, him and DRC are going to make me a better player. They're going to prolong my career. They'll be the best guys I go against all year – and I'll go against them every day in practice."
It's not a stretch to say that Fitzgerald has been hoping for a teammate like Peterson since January of 2010, when Warner and Rodgers waged a memorable first-round playoff duel that ended with the Cardinals pulling out a 51-45 overtime victory.
"Man, we played the perfect game against Green Bay in the playoffs, and we still almost lost," Fitzgerald recalled, shaking his head. "We were at home, we stopped them the first two possessions and got up by 21 points – and we still couldn't kill them, because we couldn't stop Aaron Rodgers."
Fitzgerald got up and stared out the barrier-free side of his living room, where a wall normally would be, and watched the desert sun dip over the long, luxuriant swimming pool in his backyard. It was like a scene out of one of those open-air lobbies at a resort in Hawaii or some other island locale, only this was the place the Cardinals' best player calls home. Suffice it to stay there are a lot of fans, teammates and coaches who hope it stays that way after 2011.
"That was a crazy game," Fitzgerald continued. "Kurt missed three throws in that game. If he'd missed four, we'd have lost. Think about that. That was when I realized how important it was to be able to stop a great quarterback."
Fitzgerald's current team still doesn't have one of those – but on Thursday, at least, he wasn't questioning its direction.