The Greatness of Larry Fitzgerald, as Seen Through the Eyes of His QBs

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJanuary 21, 2016

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 27: Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 and quarterback Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrate after Fitzgerald scored a 3 yard touchdown in the second quarter of the NFL game against the Green Bay Packers at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With each passing year, each game, each reception, the greatness of Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald becomes clearer. 

The YouTube catches and the scrapbook seasons just keep stacking one on top of the other, made all the more impressive when you consider the number of different quarterbacks he's had to work with. Some have been exceptional passers—like Carson Palmer, who he'll be teaming with in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, and Kurt Warner, who threw Fitzgerald two touchdowns in the 2008 Super Bowl. Others haven't.

"It isn't easy to do what he has done with different guys, especially when you look at some of the names on the list," Warner said. "There are guys who were his quarterbacks who didn't have a whole lot of success in the league, and at times it has been mix and match."

Warner was on the passing end of more of Fitzgerald's 1,071 receptions than any other quarterback: 36 percent. Palmer accounts for another 21 percent. The rest is split among 14 others quarterbacks, according to STATS LLC.

How has Fitzgerald managed to stay effective regardless of who's throwing the pass? To get a better sense of this, Bleacher Report asked those who did the passing. Here's what they said.


On getting open

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 15:  Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals attempts to catch a pass during the first half against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on November 15, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Fitzgerald is not known as a nifty route-runner, but he is known as a player who consistently finds spaces in zones and defeats man-to-man coverage. This is part of why he is a once-in-a-generation player.

Shaun King: "As a rookie, he just used physicality to get open. He was a big guy, a solidly built guy. That stood out. But now he has all the tricks. He knows how to create separation and how to use little, subtle change of paces."

Josh McCown: "His route running has really evolved. When he first came into the league, it wasn't the best. It was pretty typical for a young guy. Fitz was a little rough around the edges. If you were supposed to get to 14, Fitz might get to 10. Watching him through the years, that's the biggest thing that has changed, and it's a credit to him—the details of his routes, his footwork and all that."

Carson Palmer: "He gets open because of his mind far more than anything physical. He's such a student of the game. By the time we get to Sunday, he's so dialed in on defenders, their tendencies, their strengths and weaknesses and where he may be able to get an advantage. Don't get me wrong: He's got physical gifts, and he is relentless in taking care of his body, but he gets open because of his mind."

Ryan Lindley: "A good receiver never runs the route exactly the way it's drawn up. That's how he does it. He finds a way to get open, and if not, he bodies somebody up and gives you a place to catch it. We used to say we knew on third down he'd find a way to get open and get a first down. Carson knows he is a safety blanket."

On his body control

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01: Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals can't pull in a second quarter catch while playing the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

At 6'3", 218, Fitzgerald has unusual ability to adjust to passes. Most big receivers are considerably more stiff. His 42-yard touchdown reception from Warner in the 2008 playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons—leaping high between Falcons defenders Chris Houston and Lawyer Milloy—is one of those plays that is still talked about years later.

Kurt Warner: "For a big guy like him, it's very rare to be able to manipulate his body and contort his body like he can to go get the football. I was with a lot of great receivers, but he was the best I've been around at being able to track the football, contort the body and make the acrobatic catch."

Josh McCown: "I got him early, so some of the finer things he has become, I didn't experience. But I benefited from his raw skill set. First and foremost, his ability to attack the ball in the air is second to none. He could adjust to balls, time his jumps and catch it in the air like it was candy. Fitz was the best at it, so good to the point that when Kurt Warner got there, I shared with him—'This is the way you have to do it for him.'

"I remember the first catch of his career. We were in St. Louis. It was Denny Green's first game as head coach, my first time as opening-day starter. The Rams were still rolling at the time. Mike Martz was the head coach. We planned on going with a flea flicker the first play of the game. We got the ball on the 18, and then we get a holding call and get moved back to the 9. I'm thinking it's going to be off. Denny looks over. 'Let's do it.' Emmitt Smith is in the backfield. I hand the ball off, they bring some pressure, and he turns and pitches it back to me. Emmitt goes and picks off a defender. I catch it and spin and flip it as far downfield as I can. I was just getting the ball out of my hands. He went up over two guys and made an unbelievable catch. The rest is history. Right there, I said, 'This guy is different from everybody else.'"

Derek Anderson: "His ability to get his body in different positions and make hard catches look fairly easy is pretty rare. He's found so many different ways to catch the ball over his career. He's so good at playing the ball in the air. You can give him chances one-on-one with defenders, and bad things are not going to happen."

On his hands

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 08:  Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals attempts to catch a pass during the NFL game against the San Diego Chargers at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 8, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardi
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Fitzgerald's hands are an ideal blend of strength and softness. He dropped only one pass this season, according to STATS LLC, while catching 75 percent of the passes thrown his way. In his career he has dropped 1 percent of the 1,730 passes to him.

Shaun King: "He didn't drop anything. I don't think I ever saw him drop a pass the year we were together—in a game, practice, anything."

Derek Anderson: "He has unbelievable hands. It doesn't matter where the ball is; he's going to find a way to catch it. He probably has the second-best hands of all the guys I've played with, after Kellen Winslow Jr. Steve Smith Sr. had stupid-strong hands. Larry is in the category of those guys with the ability to catch the football.

"I remember in training camp, I threw him a ball on the sideline that was a little outside. He reached out and grabbed it one-handed. I was like, damn, that's pretty good. I knew then."

Kurt Warner: "Phenomenal hands. I've never seen anybody with better hands. He can catch all kinds of passes from all different angles and in different positions. That's what separated him from everybody else in my opinion."

John Skelton: "By far, he has the best hands I've ever seen. Some of the catches he made in practice were jaw-dropping. He would do it so nonchalantly. Stick his mitt out there, turn his head, torque his body and make a great catch."

Drew Stanton: "His hands are as good as anybody's I've been around. It never looks like the ball surprises him or jumps up on him. He's always in complete control. It seems like it's in slow motion sometimes. It gives you great confidence as a quarterback. If you get the ball around him, you know he is going to come down with it."

On his physicality

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 16:  Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals reacts after making a catch during the third quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Ph
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Given his frame, his power and the way he embraces contact, Fitzgerald is one of the most physical receivers in the league. Packers safety Morgan Burnett undoubtedly would testify to that. On Fitzgerald's 75-yard catch-and-run in the Cardinals' divisional playoff victory, Burnett was the recipient of a very unfriendly stiff-arm.

Josh McCown: "I remember once we were playing hoops in the offseason, and I came down the court. I tried to tap the ball and go around him. He was going full speed. He barreled me over. I was like, man, that's why he's able to do what he does on the field. He's a powerful guy. It's what's helped him in the later parts of his career. He may not be able to run as well as he did when he first came into the league, but his size and power have given him an advantage to continue to play at a high level."

Drew Stanton: He's so strong in the lower half of his body and you can see it out at practice [because he wears tights instead of uniform pants]. He's hard to bring down, which is one reason he's so good after the catch. Usually that first guy doesn't bring him down."

Carson Palmer: "[His blocking is] as good as it gets. Blocking is definitely a mindset and a mentality, and he has it. What he adds in that part of the game is as valuable as what he does receiving, and it takes a special kind of player to attack it like he does."

On his drive

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

No athlete achieves sustained greatness on ability alone. Fitzgerald is the complete package, with a desire to match his talent.

Carson Palmer: "The first thing I think of is his professionalism and passion. He has such a commitment to his craft and working at it in every way. His football IQ is off the charts, and so is his level of preparation."

Ryan Lindley: "I was blown away with the amount of time he still put in. He was the franchise player my rookie year (2012). Before practice, after practice, he'd want to catch more balls. He wanted to catch it in positions where his body is contorted. I tell younger kids to use him as an example. He's a premier superstar, but he's not too big to spend 15 minutes after practice catching 50 balls."

Josh McCown: "I remember walking off the field the first time with him. 'What can I do to be better?' He was always asking questions. He wouldn't stop. 'What can I do? Teach me, coach me. Tell me what I did wrong there.' That's what's carried him through his career. You hear stereotypes about wide receivers, and here is a guy who was picked No. 3 overall. To see him so hungry, wanting to learn—I'll never forget that. The work ethic stood out to me."

Shaun King: In his first year, he worked at his craft like he was a veteran receiver. A lot of rookies come into the league and just do their thing. They get it in Year 3 or 4. He was around professionals from early on in his life, so it makes sense. He was probably ahead of his time as far as taking care of his body. He came in as a rookie with a massage person, a person who stretches him out, an in-season workout guy. It wasn't common then. He'd always be on the JUGS machine when everybody left. It was part of his routine. He stayed after, just catching balls, catching balls."

On who he is

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 20: Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals smiles as he catches the ball before the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rich Schu
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Fitzgerald is known for the touchdowns, the receiving records and the Pro Bowls. But he also is known for taking teammates to Minneapolis for offseason work and then welcoming them into his home. And for starting The Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund. And for trips to Africa, India, Thailand and the Philippines to help support charitable endeavors. And for winning the first Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. And for having the presence of mind and kindness after winning a playoff game to wish ESPN's Chris Mortensen well in his battle against cancer.

Ryan Lindley: "I'd do anything for him. He always takes care of his teammates. There are not a lot of guys you have that kind of respect for. Before I got there, I spent the previous six years of my life playing Larry Fitzgerald on Madden. I was in awe of him. That's another reason why I love him. He's just a normal guy and a great friend, a good father. He has that infectious, big smile. You can't help but smile when you are around him.

"When I was there, we were on a sinking ship. It would have been easy for him to publicly and privately say, 'I've got a young kid throwing me the ball, and I'm frustrated.' He never showed a sign of lacking confidence in me. He never did.

"I was signed by the Colts before the last game of the season. I played and threw a touchdown pass. After the game my wife called me to tell me the Cardinals posted a video showing Larry and some of the guys cheering for me. In the video, he said something like, 'That's my guy.' That meant a lot to me. Things didn't always go great for me in Arizona. But when you have the guys like that behind you, that's special."

Drew Stanton: "He's a goofball off the field, but on the field he's completely focused on what he wants to do. He plays the game the right way. He is respectful of everybody around him. If you know him on a personal level, you understand why he is so successful."

Richard Bartel: "I was a journeyman quarterback for six years and was around 25 quarterbacks and some big-time players like T.O., Jason Witten, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis and DeAngelo Hall. Larry is as down to earth a celebrity and Hall of Fame-caliber player as I've ever been around. And that includes professional baseball—I did that for four years too. He's as consistent a personality as anyone I've come across in my life.

"My only touchdown pass in a regular-season game was to Larry. I had been with the team two weeks, and we were playing San Francisco. I threw a double move corner route. He went up over Carlos Rogers in double coverage and picked the ball out of the air for a touchdown. It ended up being a SportsCenter Top 10 play for him. He ran up to me afterwards, put the ball in my chest and said, 'I love you, Rich.' He gave me the ball. And then for Christmas, he got a picture of him putting the ball in my chest, framed it and gave it to me. I mean, who does that?"

Kurt Warner: "He's one of my really good friends. What has always stood out to me about him is he was ahead of his years in regards to the person he was. He had an understanding of how the things he did off the field were as big a part of who he was as what he did on the field. Rarely do young guys have that realization. It speaks to the character of the man. And the character of the man explains how he got better and better each year as a player."

On lobbying

Paul Connors/Associated Press

During his time in Arizona, Fitzgerald has played with a number of talented receivers, including Anquan Boldin, Michael Floyd, John Brown, Steve Breaston and Andre Roberts. So he has found it beneficial to occasionally remind his quarterbacks to look his way.

Josh McCown: "It was a fun room. Anquan Boldin is the ultimate competitor, and Fitz, he's the same way. Fitz was consistently reminding me how much he wanted the ball. But it was in true Fitz fashion—very humble, very respectful. Larry would rank up there with the guys who lobbied me most, but his tone made it different. Other guys like Anquan, Steve Smith and Brandon Marshall lobbied, and it was more fiery or confrontational with a lot more energy. Fitz does it in a very tactful manner."

John Skelton: "Larry was really good at lobbying in a subtle way. He was probably the anti-Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, where they are yelling and demanding. After a series when he didn't get any touches, he'd come up to you on the sideline and not say anything directly. 'What were you seeing on that last drive?' 'They were playing a lot of two-high.' 'OK, because I thought I was open a few times.' It was never, 'Hey, throw me the ball!' It was always a subtle way of asking indirectly."

Drew Stanton: "He's always politicking for the ball. He's always in the quarterback's ear. He'll even come up to me when I'm not playing. 'You see I'm open out there? You see me, right?' He does it in a way that there is a hint of sarcasm. But he does think he's open."

On his ability to lift a team

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians may be one of the best play-callers in the league, but it did not take a genius to get the ball in the hands of No. 11 in overtime against the Packers. Fitzgerald is a proven big-game performer. In eight postseason games, he has 53 catches for 912 yards and 10 touchdowns. On Sunday, he became the only player in NFL history to have 150 receiving yards or more in three playoff games.

John Skelton: "In all my years of playing at whatever level, whatever team, Larry—more than anyone—always energized everyone around him. Players, coaches, fans, everyone feeds off him. What he did against the Packers last week in overtime, we saw that all the time from him. Many times we were sluggish on offense, we knew if we got it to Larry, even on a short screen or a routine hitch route, Larry would make something happen. Some guys are more athletic than Larry. Guys are faster than Larry. Guys are more dynamic and better playmakers than Larry. But none of them can energize the way Larry does. None of them has that 'it' factor."

Kurt Warner: "The greatest memory to me was the Super Bowl run we made. Great catches, starting in that first playoff game. We threw a flea flicker he catches between two guys. Then we go up to Carolina and we had another play that was a high ball, he goes up, the ball hits him, then it gets away from him, guys are all over him, he reaches out and makes the catch. The Philly game, he catches three touchdowns in the first half. That run is what I remember the most. He played at a level that I don't know that any receiver has ever played at in a postseason, or at least rivals some of the best."

On his maturation

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Kurt Warner: "He continued to grow every year I was with him. He continually learned, pushed the envelope, got better. One year, it was focus on running routes. The next year, he focused on becoming a better blocker, which he became one of the best in the league at that. Even though he already was considered one of the best in the league, he was challenged to be better, and he was willing to accept challenges.

"We talked a lot when I was with him about how he relied on size and speed, and if he wanted to play a long time he would have to learn the rest of the game. He put in a lot of hard work, and now you are seeing the fruits of that labor. He may not be the same guy physically, but he learned how to play the position, and I think he's still growing. Bruce is putting him more inside and asking him to do different things. But the willingness to grow is what is allowing him to have the same level of success he had early in his career. He's doing it a completely different way, and that's a testament to him. Most guys can do it only one way, and they do it one way as long as they can."

Derek Anderson: "I've been gone for five years, and his offseason preparation has continued to grow in that period. I'm still around him in the offseason, and I know he understands he has to take care of his body more and be ready when he gets to camp. The things he has done in the offseason as he got older have helped him continue to be productive. It shows with the season he is having."

Richard Bartel: "What's juiced him further is Bruce believes in him. Larry has been needing that. People really haven't tapped into him and said, 'We can depend on him, he's not just a guy in the twilight of his career who was once great.' Bruce believes he is still great, and he's proving that with the way he is game-planning. Larry is meeting that standard. We are seeing a second wind of his career that otherwise I don't think would have happened."

Carson Palmer: "I think [his growth is] a testament to understanding the game and understanding the entire offense. And I don't just mean his role in it. He understands what every single player is doing on a given play. Wrapping your head around all of that is not easy, but he's mastered it. It's made him even more valuable than he already was."

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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