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Cardinals Face a Delicate Decision, and No Easy Answer, with Larry Fitzgerald

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 5, 2015

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 07:  Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals reacts on the sidelines during the third quarter of the NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Chiefs 17-14.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Cardinals were historically awful as a one-and-done playoff team, producing a record low 78 offensive yards in their loss to the Carolina Panthers.

The blundering nothingness that led to only 1.64 yards gained per play will have a haunting, long-lasting glow for Cardinals fans who were gleeful at the thought of a home-field Super Bowl. That is what makes it so excruciatingly difficult to embrace a scary thought: That game was likely wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s last as a Cardinal.

The mental gear shift from Super Bowl hopefuls to “you mean the best receiver in franchise history is leaving?” on day two of the offseason is filled with anguish. But for the health of all involved, that thought should percolate for a little while, and then grow to the point of acceptance.

It’s a future Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has no control over. He’s a coach, after all, and in that role Arians manages players, not “caps and all that crap,” as he told Darren Urban of Cardinals.com.

But as a coach he’s also a fan—a Fitzgerald fan, and thinking about a future without the team’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (89) isn't fun for him either.

Darren Urban @Cardschatter

More Arians on @LarryFitzgerald: "... I just coach the heck out of him and he's a great kid. I look forward to having him next year."

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No, those delicate thoughts are left to general manager Steve Keim. While Cardinals fans have numbers associated with that record-low playoff flame-out etched in their minds right now, another set of digits dances in Keim’s brain.

There’s a towering dollar sign in front of them, and they represent a large financial object.

Keim’s problem is $23.6 million, the amount of cap space Fitzgerald is set to account for in 2015. That’s more than a salary-cap anchor. It’s an iceberg, and without drastic measures it has the potential to sink Arizona’s 2015 offseason.

It won’t surprise you to learn the money currently tied to Fitzgerald’s name for next season will make a then-32-year-old the highest-paid wide receiver against the cap, per Spotrac. He’s scheduled to account for over $3 million more in cap space than Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson.

And that’s not even what should really prompt the eye rubbing. This should: Fitzgerald will be five years older than Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green at the start of next season and three years removed from his last 1,000-plus yard campaign. Yet he's slated to get paid over $13 million more against the cap.

We could continue with that game for quite some time, noting Fitzgerald’s cap figure in 2015 is also $13 million more than the FalconsJulio Jones. But a comparison to quarterbacks should really turn your widening-eyes reflex into a more permanent look.

Top five 2015 quarterback cap hits
Quarterback2015 cap hit
Tony Romo$27.8 million
Drew Brees$26.4 million
Peyton Manning$21.5 million
Eli Manning$19.8 million
Matt Ryan$19.5 million
Source: Spotrac

Quarterbacks are generally (and rightfully) the highest-paid offensive players, with 16 of the top 20 cap hits for 2015 belonging to franchise pivots who touch the ball on every play. Yet the salary-cap cost for Fitzgerald's services places him behind only two quarterbacks.

Now that we have a firm grasp on the problem and its dark depth, let’s assume the couch GM position and attempt to find a solution to keep Fitzgerald in Arizona. There’s only one, and it rests with Fitzgerald.

The Cardinals have a meager $3.4 million in cap space, again per Spotrac. To create more precious dollars heading into free agency it’s easy to suggest a pay cut, which is indeed the route currently being explored, according to a report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

“I’m told the ball is in his court as far as how much he wants to accept and how willing he is to help out their salary-cap situation,” Rapoport said Saturday.

The Cardinals are hoping a veteran with only a few years of earning time left is feeling generous. Fitzgerald will be called greedy if he doesn’t accept a sufficient pay cut or worse names that have fewer letters. But wanting terms of a contract to be honored is well within a player's rights, especially in a league that rips up those same agreements regularly and fully guaranteed deals don’t exist.

Fitzgerald knows the end is coming. But in a moment of truth he likely also believes that if he was given even adequate quarterback play for much of his time in Arizona, his cap hit wouldn’t look so bad alongside those quarterbacks or Calvin Johnson.

ESPN Stats & Information reminds us of the quarterback sorrow Fitzgerald dealt with before Carson Palmer arrived.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

In 2012, Cardinals' quarterbacks had 4 TD and 11 INT when throwing to Larry Fitzgerald

Since 2010 when Kurt Warner retired the Cardinals have cycled through eight quarterbacks. That’s partly been due to injuries (see: this season's tale of destruction), but mostly because of awfulness.

So Fitzgerald can be forgiven if he isn’t in a giving mood to offer Keim enough salary-cap oxygen. The problem is the next option, or really the lack of any other option that keeps him in Arizona.

A contract restructuring is useless and is the league’s equivalent of the clever child who cleans a room by stuffing everything in the closet. A problem is merely avoided for a period of time but not solved.

Just over a year ago Fitzgerald restructured his contract to save the Cardinals $10 million, money that then flowed to cornerback Patrick Peterson and helped to bring in the likes of fellow corner Antonio Cromartie and linebacker Larry Foote on one-year rental deals.

There’s only so many toys and dusty baseball cards you can stuff in that closet before it finally bursts open, and then you’re banned from watching TV for maybe a whole week. The doors are ready to explode on Fitzgerald’s contract, and another restructuring just leads to an even larger financial drowning next year. 

As it stands right now, the Cardinals are facing $14.4 million in dead money if Fitzgerald is either released or traded, according to Spotrac. That’s some serious pain, though remarkably the penalty to cut Fitzgerald is still nearly $9 million less than the cost to keep him.

That’s why without a pay cut it takes a creative imagination to see Fitzgerald remaining in Arizona. Keim can appease his audience and fanbase with the words they desperately want to hear by saying “it’s our intent to have Larry Fitzgerald retire as a Cardinal,” as he did during a recent interview on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. But absent a pay slash, the weight of his contract will become crippling.

The reality of a future without Fitzgerald is even more difficult to accept when we set aside finances.

Fitzgerald is aging and slowing, as humans generally do over time. But he was still repeatedly a powerful presence after the catch this season while barreling through defenders in the open field. Aging players need to either adapt or face extinction, and Fitzgerald made physicality a central part of his game while breaking 12 tackles, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

He also still has reliable, silky smooth hands. Fitzgerald finished tied with the EaglesJeremy Maclin for the fewest drops among wideouts who received at least 50 percent of their team’s targets.

The most sure-handed WRs of 2014
Wide receiverTargetsDropsDrop rate
Jeremy Maclin14011.16
Larry Fitzgerald10011.56
Emmanuel Sanders14021.94
Odell Beckham Jr.12922.15
Jarvis Landry10522.33
Source: Pro Football Focus

The task ahead is finding a manageable dollar figure that accounts for the veteran's decline while also giving Keim some flexibility to retain other assets (like possibly Cromartie, for example, who’s a pending free agent).

That’s no easy trick, and the next step has to be taken by early March when Fitzgerald’s $8 million roster roster bonus is triggered. With youth elsewhere on the Cardinals’ wide receiver depth chart in the form of John Brown and Michael Floyd, moving away from Fitzgerald and his hefty contract remains likely.

Floyd was inconsistent this season but still finished with three 100-plus yard games while often displaying his leaping ability to high point the ball in traffic. And Brown showed immediate promise as a rookie with his scorching slot speed that led to 52 receptions for 752 yards, even as the third option. Combined they make Fitzgerald expendable or at least ease the pain of his departure.

The business of the NFL doesn’t rest for loyalty or fan appreciation. It deals only in dollars and the return on every investment.

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