Arizona Cardinals: How Should They Handle Larry Fitzgerald Contract Negotiation?
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Though he is not playing in the game, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been one of the most talked about stars doing the rounds this Super Bowl week.
And above all else, one thing keeps coming up time and again.
Would Larry Fitzgerald really consider remaining with a team like the Cardinals?
When news broke that the Cardinals organisation would consider trading Fitzgerald if the right offer came along, fans and analysts were sent into a frenzy.
Within a few days, this sole, anonymous rumor had grown to such a level that the consensus amongst analysts was that the Cardinals would face an uphill struggle to keep their sole offensive superstar. Fans resigned themselves to the fact that Fitz would be on his way out of Phoenix, and the player became one of the most talked about news stories, aside from the Super Bowl itself.
Though Fitz has done little to encourage this—even going so far as expressing his desire to retire with the Cardinals, if he feels they are committed to winning—the talk will not assuage.
Fellow Bleacher Report columnist, Adam Lazarus, made a very persuasive case for Fitz's leaving the state, but, while the individual points all ring true, the conclusion somehow feels unlikely to me.
I believe that Larry Fitzgerald will be a Cardinal long after the end of this season, assuming that the team makes keeping him a No. 1 priority.
So, what must the Cardinals do to make this happen? Let's take a look.
Luke is a Featured Columnist for the Arizona Cardinals on Bleacher Reporter. He also covers the Arizona Cardinals for Sports Haze Phoenix. Follow him on twitter www.twitter.com/lukebunger and Sports Haze, www.sportshaze.com/phoenix
Secure the Services of a Quality Quarterback: Do Not Place All Hopes on a Rookie
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The Cardinals need a quarterback, period.
I have been vocal in my support of John Skelton, and still believe that he has the skills to develop into a quality, Super Bowl-ready quarterback.
He reminds me a lot of Ben Roethlisberger, but with a better attitude, or Joe Flacco. That's no bad thing—both of which have made the playoffs recently, with "Big Ben" preparing to start in his third career Super Bowl.
However, he is not there yet, and putting all of their hope on either him, or any of the rookie QBs available in the draft is not the answer.
It's not that dropping a quarterback in at the deep end, and letting him learn on the job can't work.
Many first and second-year starters have been handed the keys and experienced shaky seasons, before developing into dependable starters over time.
Doing so with Skelton could be a legitimate strategy, but not, however, if the Cardinals want to keep Fitzgerald.
The team must demonstrate a significant commitment to becoming a winning force quickly and immediately. Fitzgerald has been clear. He wants to remain a Cardinal, but he also wants to win, and winning trumps team loyalties.
I shall not again rehash who I think that quarterback should be, as I have already done so, on more than one occasion. However, whichever direction they choose to go, whether free agent or through trading, the Cardinals must secure someone who Fitzgerald approves of.
In an interview with NFL.com, posted on the team's official website, Fitzgerald was clear: he doesn't want to make player decisions for the coaching staff, and doesn't want to use his position to influence whom he plays with. He is a remarkably selfless player in that respect, however, the fact remains that his personal production, first, and winning overall, are intrinsically linked to the quarterback position, and picking someone with whom Fitzgerald feels unable to develop a rapport is going to be devastating.
My personal feelings are that either Kyle Orton or Kevin Kolb give the Cardinals the best chance of winning in the short term, and are both young enough that, should Skelton fail to develop as hoped, they will be able to lead the team for several years to come.
Focus on Defense, O-Line
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It may not seem like the most obvious consideration, when keeping a wide receiver happy, but in many ways, the Cardinals losses in 2010 were more to do with defensive frailties than offensive ones.
Fitzgerald would, of course, insist on a good quarterback if he is going to remain with the team, but, unless that quarterback is of the caliber of Kurt Warner, it is unlikely that the Cardinals can make another run for the Super Bowl solely by out-gunning their opponents.
In particular, the outside linebacker and left tackle positions need significant improvement.
Both could be addressed in free agency, or the draft, but the Cardinals must aim to do both as soon as the CBA allows. Improving the defense, and pass block will make the Cardinals a much more rounded team.
Joey Porter and Clark Haggins have both disappointed at OLB, and while O'Brien Schofield has shown promise, he is the only current player on the depth chart who deserves a shot at the starting job in 2011.
There are plenty of available free agents at both linebacker and tackle, so securing one should not be impossible, but the owners will need to commit funds to doing so.
The signing of a new defensive coordinator will also help. The candidates are all strong, but none stronger than Keith Butler, linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not only does Butler have a close relationship with the Cardinals organisation, through head coach Ken Whisenhunt, and plenty of playoff experience, both at Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
He knows the linebacker position—the Cardinals' weakest—inside out, and is well respected by players, and would prove a draw for many.
His ascent to coordinator has been a long time coming, and is supremely experienced for someone who has never called plays before.
Von Miller is a prospect who is currently the Cardinals' consensus first-round pick, but whether in free agency, drafting or trading, a coach like Keith Butler is an outstanding judge of talent, and would likely come up with the goods.
Find a Dedicated Offensive Play-Caller
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I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Ken Whisenhunt was a great offensive coordinator, and is a great head coach, but not both.
He doesn't possess the skill or experience to do both at the same time—very few do.
2010 was clearly a tough year from him, and one where it really showed how much he misses Todd Haley.
Whisenhunt was without Haley throughout 2009, and still managed to make the playoffs, which is perhaps what convinced him to try again in 2010, but it was clearly an unsuccessful experiment.
In 2009, it would be fair to say that Kurt Warner, more than Ken Whisenhunt, was coordinating the offense and keeping things moving.
Whisenhunt should not feel like this is a personal failing—many of the best head coaches of all time have that title because they know when to take ownership of something, and when to defer to someone else.
Hiring an offensive coordinator would allow Whisenhunt to focus on more important things come game time, and would also allow the offense to really take off.
It's not that play-calling was bad under Whisenhunt either, just not consistent enough. The Cardinals always looked just a little under-prepared and a little harassed at the line of scrimmage, as though they hadn't quite understood what the coach had in mind. A few too many drives just seemed a little ill thought out, as if they had been designed out of lack of anything better.
That works, sometimes, but at 3rd-and-long with the game on the line, you need a play-caller whose sole focus is on making this play, not the dozens of other sideline roles a head coach must fulfill.
Though the defensive coordinator job is the one gaining all of the media attention right now, and one of the more obvious choices, namely Josh McDaniels, has already been snapped up, the Cardinals still need to make this a priority.
An offensive coordinator with experience coaching quarterbacks or wide receivers is, of course, preferable, but, I believe Fitzgerald will respond well to seeing the organisation invest in improving their coaching staff.
Keep Family Together: Don't Cheap Out When It Comes To Keeping Familiar Faces
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The Cardinals have not typically been the sort of team that invests heavily in keeping their personnel together.
Last season they sat by and watched as three All-Pro talents, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle all walked out of the door, and also lost Warner to retirement without a clear successor.
That they have committed to sitting down with Larry Fitzgerald early is a good sign that the culture in Arizona may be changing, but they also need to commit to keeping Glendale a happy, familiar place for their stars.
The Cardinals have a lengthy list of free agents coming into 2011, and while not every one of them needs to be re-signed, a good number should be similarly high priorities for the team.
Fitzgerald has admitted to missing Warner and Boldin, not just on the field, but as friends, and feeling alone on the team, at times.
Seeing Steve Breaston, Tim Hightower, Deuce Lutui, Lyle Sendlein and Early Doucet walk would be, I think, too much for the star.
All of these players have spent their entire careers with Fitzgerald and the Cardinals, and it's clear that he counts them as friends.
He still sees the Cardinals receiving corps as his receiving corps, and has committed to bringing them all to his Minnesota training camp in the offseason, and working out with them to keep them in game-day form, in the event of a lockout.
He still views the Cardinals as his team, but shipping too many of these players out will surely force him to reevaluate this.
The Cardinals could aim to bolster their receiving crew in free agency, or even by taking A.J. Green in the first round of the draft, or Julio Jones if he slips to early in the second—Steve Breaston is, in my opinion, better working the slot anyway—but the Cardinals should aim to keep Fitzgerald happy by keeping his friends and colleagues close by.
Make Him Feel Wanted: Give Him a Really Good Deal
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Here's the thing.
The main thing standing between Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals could well be the Cardinals.
He is looking for reasons to stay with them, he isn't looking for a way out. He has admitted to wanting to retire a Cardinal, and is playing ball, when it comes to talking about an extension.
He has made it clear to the organisation what it will take to keep him, a good chance of being a winner, down the road, and wants to be fairly compensated for his work. Ideally he doesn't want to worry about having to negotiate another contract again until much closer to the end of his career.
The contract he signs would likely make him one of the highest paid non-quarterbacks in the league, but if you accept that he is arguably the best player at his position, coming into the prime of his playing career, then he deserves to be.
If he wants a no-trade clause, give him a no-trade clause, if he wants a guarantee that he will remain a captain throughout his career, the right to opt-out of the contract if certain incentives aren't met or anything else, give it to him.
I'm not saying that they should give in to every demand and pay him whatever his agent first offers, but constantly low-balling him, or quibbling over small things isn't going to help get the deal done.
And make sure it's a nice long contract; he has at least four or five more years amongst the top players at his position, so don't fear offering him a six-year deal if that's what he wants.
Fitzgerald is the face of the team, an example and an inspiration to players and fans alike.
He is not a diva, or overly demanding, and importantly there are no off-field issues to worry about. Unlike so many at his position, there is almost no chance of him being suspended for half a season for violating the league's personal conduct policy—he is the poster child for it.
He isn't going to divide a locker room or kick off at the slightest insult. He isn't going to hold out in training camp or miss workouts over little things.
He is a leader and a rallying point on the field and off it, not a distraction. He represents the club, and football players in a great light, and is as deserving as anyone in the league of a top-tier contract.
They need to realise what they have in Larry Fitzgerald cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. You cannot evaluate him by how many draft picks you may get for him, or how much cap space he may take.
Larry Fitzgerald is something very special in this league, and the Cardinals need to realise that fact, and do everything in their power to keep him there for many years to come.
And I, for one, think that they will.