Arizona Cardinals fans have had precious little to celebrate in 2010.
Compared to the back-to-back NFC West titles the Cardinal fans have become used to, the season has been marred by continual upset and failure.
However, the Cardinals fans were given something to smile about this week, when star wide receiver, and fan favourite Larry Fitzgerald expressed his desire to remain a Cardinal beyond the end of his current contract.
"I want to stay here. I enjoy playing for Coach Whisenhunt." Fitzgerald told the Associated Press this past Wednesday. "I enjoy working for the Bidwills. They've always treated me good since I first got here. This is all I know. I can't ever say that I want to go anywhere else."
Fitzgerald has been the face of the Arizona Cardinals in recent years, and has been one of the league's most prolific players. This season, Fitzgerald, 27, became the youngest NFL player ever to reach 600 catches, and the second youngest, behind Randy Moss, to surpass 8000 yards.
He smashed practically every post-season receiving record in the Cardinals' 2008 run to the Superbowl, and, earlier this season surpassed former teammate Anquan Boldin, to become the team's all time reception leader.
Recently, however, fans had started to worry that Fitzgerald, who becomes an unrestricted free agent following the 2011 season, may choose not to re-sign with the Cardinals. In 2009, Fitzgerald restructured his contract, reportedly to free up some cap space in order to help the Cardinals keep Anquan Boldin, who was subsequently traded to the Baltimore Ravens. However, during these negotiations, Fitzgerald decided to do so without extending his contract beyond 2011.
Some fans had begun to speculate that the star may be growing disillusioned with the franchise, and would play out his contract, and take his leave.
However, his recent comments put paid to that idea "I'm not going to hold a team hostage," he said. "I think that's counterproductive. I had the opportunity to do that a few years ago and, at my core, I'm a team guy. Obviously I want to be compensated for my work, no different than you or anybody else in America that's working, but I don't want it to be to the point where we can't make this thing go."
"I'm not concerned about it to be honest with you," he said. "If the Cardinals feel I'm worthy of an extension, they're going to keep me here."
However, he stopped short of committing his future to the Cardinals outright.
He added "If [the Cardinals] don't [want to re-sign me] then I won't be here. I'm just going to play hard and do everything I can these last two weeks."
He also made it clear that, while he is loyal to the franchise, that only goes so far.
"I've said it before that the most important thing for me in my career is to win," he said. "I've been in the playoffs the last two seasons. Obviously we're not going to make it this year, but I know what it feels like to play in the postseason and this feeling is not the one I want to have at the conclusion of my year. It's just not a good feeling."
For the Cardinals to retain Fitzgerald, therefore, seems relatively simple. They must make him a fair, long term, offer, and work hard to increase the teams success in 2011. Fitzgerald appears to be looking for a reason to remain with the team, not looking for excuses not to sign, which makes the whole matter much easier.
However, there are a few things, I think, that will make the task even simpler for the Cardinals.
Sign an established quarterback.
It's not that difficult a concept to grasp, a good QB can make average players look great, a bad one can hurt even the most elite pass catcher. In 2010, Fitzgerald's numbers have certainly been affected by weakness at the quarterback position.
In John Skelton, the Cardinals may have found a future franchise passer. "You know what? I really like his mentality," Fitzgerald said of the youngster. "He doesn't really show too much emotion. He doesn't get too high, too low, and he plays within himself. I like that about him. I see him as being successful and I'm going to do everything I can to help him."
Nevertheless, Skelton, who has thus far completed less than half of his passes, has a long way to go before he becomes a dependable, division winning quarterback.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other options for the Cardinals to pursue, including Kyle Orton, who may soon be permanently replaced by rookie Tim Tebow, Kevin Kolb, who was tipped as the next big thing in Philly only to be replaced by a resurgent Michael Vick and Marc Bulger, who has been regularly linked with the Cardinals throughout the latter part of his career.
However, chief amongst those, especially when it comes to keeping Fitz happy, should be Donovan McNabb. I have recently argued that McNabb, a Phoenix resident, could be a worthy replacement for Kurt Warner. Of course, the main reason McNabb would encourage Fitzgerald to extend his contract, is that the two are close friends, and Fitzgerald has made it known that he feels alone in Arizona now people like Anquan Boldin and Antrel Rolle have moved on.
Focus on making him feel appreciated.
Another way the Cardinals can increase the chances of keeping Fitzgerald on their roster is to treat him like the elite player that he is. I'm not saying that they haven't to this point, and Fitzgerald certainly seems a lot happier than Boldin did about the way his contract has been handled.
However, low-balling the offers made to him, and constantly negotiating over little, insignificant things is not the way to endear him to the program.
The Cardinals need to be unafraid of making a significant investment in a player who, at 28, will remain one of the elite pass catchers in the NFL for several years to come. They must make him a good offer, before he becomes a free agent, and make getting pen-to-paper an early priority for 2011.
They must also do everything they can to keep him happy on the field. Fitzgerald is just 14 yards shy of his fifth 1000-yard-plus season in six years, and must ensure that he gets those in the last two games, without risking injuring him.
The Cardinals should aim to put the ball in his direction often during the opening drive against the Cowboys, and ensure that he passes the 1000 yard mark as quickly as possible.
In 2010, he has caught just five touchdown passes, a career low. The Cardinals must also aim to remedy this, making him their primary target in the red zone.
Finally, the Cardinals must also allow Fitzgerald to do what he does best, and target him down the field and allow him to haul in long touchdown passes. At this point, it does not matter much whether Skelton, Hall or Anderson are occasionally picked off, the season is out of reach, the important thing is allowing Larry Fitzgerald to be the hero he deserves to be.
Bring in another elite receiver.
While many fans have been calling for Arizona to draft a quarterback in 2011, many draft experts have been arguing that the best option for the Cardinals will be Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver AJ Green. While initially sceptical, I have now been convinced that the Cardinals should definitely do this.
The fact of the matter is, Steve Breaston, while a fantastic deep threat is not an every-down number two wide receiver. It's simply not his strength. He drops too many short passes, and his ability to shake simple coverage has hurt Larry Fitzgerald.
Teams have been more than happy to double cover Fitzgerald, and force the Cardinals to pass elsewhere.
AJ Green is, in the mind of many college scouts, the most talented receiver of a generation, and has rightly drawn many comparisons to Larry Fitzgerald himself.
He is certainly not the sort of player you can let run free, and lining up opposite to Larry Fitzgerald defenses will certainly struggle to cover both men adequately.
And after all, a productive Larry Fitzgerald is a happy Larry Fitzgerald.
However, at least fans rest easy, knowing their star has not abandoned them yet, and that the front office are aware of what he means to the team.
Whisenhunt, and his team "have been very clear that it's important" to keep Fitzgerald in Cardinal Red past the end of the 2011 campaign, and are making it known that keeping him happy is priority one.