Seven weeks and six games ago for the Arizona Cardinals, a veteran offensive anchor was forgotten. It seemed he was cast aside and only physically present, used infrequently and thought about even less.
Back in Week 1, the Cardinals opened their season with a narrow 18-17 win over the San Diego Chargers. Looking only at the score, one assumes the steady set of receiving hands Larry Fitzgerald provides would have been used often in a game that turned knuckles several shades of white.
Yet there he was, nearly discarded with only a single reception, and he wasn’t even targeted until the fourth quarter.
At the time, there was concern and borderline panic.
Were we watching the beginning of the end for a receiver who’s in that strange land between middle-aged and old for his position at 31? Were the Cardinals phasing Fitzgerald out knowing that a $23.6 million salary-cap hit (per Spotrac) in 2015 means he’s likely playing his final year in the desert? Or is he simply declining rapidly?
The answers then and now after his sudden resurgence are the same. We’re watching the new Larry Fitzgerald, even though he’s an old Larry Fitzgerald.
He still has sufficient speed to work the field deep and does so often enough. But his game lies shorter now while using a physical presence to thrash and grind for yards after the catch.
He’s a possession receiver, and that doesn’t have to be an insult. Instead it can be a compliment and the ideal fit for an offense with a quarterback still recovering from a shoulder injury.
Following that Week 1 win, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was asked about Fitzgerald’s near blanking in the box score. His answer, courtesy of AZCardinals.com's Darren Urban, reinforced a fundamental reality:
There was a time not too long ago when Fitzgerald was a blazing deep threat who could leave defensive backs in pretzels. In 2011, he had the fourth 1,400-plus-yard season of his career (1,411 yards) and did it while averaging a personal high of 17.6 yards per reception.
But now Fitzgerald has settled into a role perfectly suited for what he brings to an offense, and he’s doing it for a play-caller who knows how to squeeze out the remaining athletic juice from an aging receiver.
Fitzgerald came within only 12 yards of matching the best single-game receiving total of his career Sunday during a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. He hauled in seven receptions for 160 yards, highlighted by a career-long 80-yard catch.
He didn’t look old or creaky Sunday. He looked effective, though the way he gets from line of scrimmage to end zone has changed.
The most advanced coaches and coordinators maximize the talents of players by putting them in the best possible situations to succeed. Arians has done that with Fitzgerald by asking him to do something more often: turn a short catch into a long gain.
Fitzgerald is still sure-handed in traffic, highlighted by his zero drops (subscription required) on 30 catchable balls. His 6’3”, 218-pound frame still makes for painful tackling in the open field.
So Arians has found open space for him, giving Fitzgerald a slice of green grass after a short target and then asking him to either outrun a defender or run through him. The result has been 207 yards (subscription required) after the catch through seven games for the 11th-year wideout.
That puts him on pace for 473 yards after the catch this season, blowing away his final totals in 2013 (372) and 2012 (277). He’s done that through excellent play design and sheer force, both of which were showcased Sunday on his long touchdown.
An 80-yard touchdown already looks pretty slick when it scrolls across the ticker at the bottom of your living-room moving picture box. But what you don’t see is that only three of those yards came through the air.
Faced with a 3rd-and-long situation needing 10 yards, the Cardinals lined up with four wide receivers in a bunch set. They were split evenly to quarterback Carson Palmer’s left and right as he stood in shotgun, with running back Andre Ellington initially beside him before motioning out wide.
When receivers are stacked, the degree of difficulty is cranked up for defensive backs. Both potential pass-catchers could move in any direction while lined up in the slot, and there’s the possibility of a natural pick play to create space.
This is exactly what happened when inside receiver Ted Ginn ran a slant while Fitzgerald cut underneath.
Immediately, a blocker was in place when Fitzgerald caught the ball only a few yards away from where the play began. But Ginn wasn’t done yet, and neither was the genius of this play design. After getting his first block, Ginn was still in position to halt the back-side pursuit of linebacker DeMeco Ryans.
Then it was Fitzgerald’s turn to do the heavy lifting. Now he was in the exact situation envisioned by Arians, the artist of this play: He had one man to beat on his own through either his muscle or speed—or a combination of both—and another to outrun.
Done. Fitzgerald left cornerback Bradley Fletcher flailing after taking a sharp angle, and fellow cornerback Brandon Boykin couldn’t catch him.
The play ended in six points and 77 yards after the catch.
In Week 5 against the Washington Redskins, we saw the same outcome on a shorter distance, with Fitzgerald’s strength utilized just outside the red zone this time.
It was second down and the Cardinals were on Washington’s 24-yard line. Palmer lined up in shotgun again, with three receivers bunched to his right and Fitzgerald alone on the left.
With a single-high safety deep and a blitz coming, Fitzgerald had one-on-one coverage. He needed to win and beat his man to the inside on a slant, then fight for whatever yardage was left to the end zone.
After a quick drop against a five-man rush, Palmer found Fitzgerald eight yards downfield. Fitzgerald was open because he ran a precise route to gain access to the inside against Redskins cornerback E.J. Biggers.
But then he was faced with this unpleasant encounter a few steps later. Biggers was still chasing while safety Ryan Clark closed the gap and crouched low, bracing to wrap up the ball-carrier.
That’s where the play should have ended. Instead Fitzgerald planted with his right foot, changing direction slightly but suddenly to make Clark miss. Then Biggers held on, taking a 10-yard ride to the end zone.
Even after his sluggish start Fitzgerald leads the Cardinals this season in receptions (30) and receiving yards (443). Both of his touchdowns have come after long runs in the open field as Arians maximizes his strengths on quick-hitting targets, using fellow wide receivers John Brown and Michael Floyd as the true deep burners.
Fitzgerald can still leap, and he can still make acrobatic grabs in the end zone and along the sideline.
He can still sprint away far and fast too, and he’s doing more of that now while remaining a key contributor in an offense overflowing with speed at his position.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).