As the Arizona Cardinals come out of their bye week and prepare to embark on the second half of their 2015 season, the team is 6-2, has a sizable lead in the NFC West and is widely considered one of the NFC's top Super Bowl contenders.
A large part of that success can be attributed to star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has rebounded from three consecutive subpar years to post one of the best half-seasons of his illustrious career.
|Larry Fitzgerald 2015|
Bleacher Report recently sat down with the eight-time Pro Bowler to discuss the Cardinals' success in 2015, his bounce-back campaign and the Redbirds' chances of closing the season with a trip to Santa Clara, California, and Super Bowl 50.
It wasn't long ago that it appeared the latest chapter in Fitzgerald's story wouldn't unfold this way. After the wideout's third straight year of fewer than 1,000 receiving yards and with his sporting a massive cap number for 2015, the year dawned with reports that Fitzgerald might not even be a Cardinal this season.
However, thanks to a restructured deal, Fitzgerald was indeed back in Arizona when the team opened the season against the New Orleans Saints. And it didn't take long for it to become clear that where Fitzgerald was concerned, 2015 was going to be different.
Against the Saints, Fitzgerald caught six passes for 87 yards, numbers that would have made that his fourth-best game of 2014. And he was only getting started. Over the next two games Fitzgerald erupted for 17 grabs, 246 yards and five scores. He had only two touchdowns in 2014.
Over the first half of 2015, Fitzgerald set a pace that would net him 110 catches, 1,412 yards and 14 touchdowns. Pro Football Focus ranks Fitzgerald fourth among wide receivers so far this season. Discounting Steve Smith Sr. of the Baltimore Ravens (who tore his Achilles), per PFF, only Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons have played better at the position in 2015.
A career season for Fitzgerald. At age 32.
Always the consummate professional, Fitzgerald credited just about everyone with his renaissance—except himself, of course.
"First of all," Fitzgerald told Bleacher Report, "just having an opportunity to come back again [for] a wonderful owner I feel is the best in the business in Michael Bidwill, who gave me the opportunity to finish my career in Arizona. And then just having a healthy unit—having Carson Palmer back healthy, Chris Johnson running the football. It helped tremendously. All of those were key components to us being able to get off to a fast start."
Given the injuries that absolutely devastated the Cardinals at quarterback last year, having a healthy Palmer under center and playing some of the best football of his career has been vital to Arizona's success. Fitzgerald was quick to credit the signal-caller, although he spread the love around to his other teammates as well.
"It's a quarterback-driven league, and to have our quarterback healthy and doing the the things he's capable of doing has made things a lot easier for everybody," he said.
"Having him back has been huge. Having Chris Johnson, the offensive line is playing really well, the defense has been playing lights-out for us, flying around and making plays. It's been outstanding so far."
As Paola Boivin of AZ Central reported, the admiration society between quarterback and receiver extends from Palmer to Fitzgerald as well:
He’s transformed himself. He spent so much time early on in his career one-on-one on the outside … which he absolutely crushed and did a great job in. Now we ask him to do something completely different.
He’s inside a lot. He’s blocking guys that outweigh him by 40 pounds but he’s winning the battle. To see him do it and to see him work and practice and lead and do all of the things he does, I don’t know another guy in the league who has done that.
Fitzgerald admitted that he isn't the same player who entered the NFL as the third overall pick of the Cardinals back in 2004.
"I play more with my mind than I do with my body at this point," he said. "Early on in my career, I didn't really care too much about anything but going out there and taking the ball off somebody's head—making one-handed catches and things of that nature that don't really mean anything. Now I'm playing for something special, and that means a lot more."
In addition to Fitzgerald's evolving role on the field, as the elder statesman of a receiving corps that includes talented youngsters such as Michael Floyd and John Brown (both age 25), Fitzgerald also serves as a mentor of sorts. It's a role he said he relishes.
"We're a very close-knit group," he said. "We really care about each other. Push each other every single day to get better and make plays. When guys are out there working hard in practice and you see something—they get something wrong—I try to help them with it and they do the same for me.
"It's something we really enjoy doing. Seeing each other have success."
There's been more than a little success for the Cardinals in 2015. After the St. Louis Rams fell to the Vikings in Minnesota on Sunday, Arizona opened a two-game lead over St. Louis and the Seattle Seahawks. A win in Seattle on Sunday night would afford the Cardinals a virtual stranglehold on the division.
Still, for all the regular-season success the Cardinals have enjoyed so far this year and for all the individual success Fitzgerald has enjoyed, there's one force above all others propelling him during this resurgent season.
The drive to get back to the Super Bowl.
"I can't even put into words how much it would mean to have another opportunity to get there," Fitzgerald said. "To compete for something of that magnitude. It's the biggest stage, and given where I'm at in my career it would mean the world to me."
If Fitzgerald continues torching defensive backs and the Cardinals keep turning up the heat on the rest of the NFC West, he just might get his wish.
This holiday season Larry Fitzgerald is teaming up with Visa Checkout to show consumers how to safely and easily conduct their Christmas shopping online. You can learn more about Visa Checkout by clicking here.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter, @IDPSharks.