In Phoenix this week some Arizona Cardinals fans took to calling the play “the Hail Larry.”
Cute, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald thinks. But not important right now. His 75-yard catch-and-run in overtime was central to the Cardinals beating the Green Bay Packers. But that was then, and the days leading up to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game are not for reflection.
“We’ve moved past that,” Fitzgerald said Thursday. “That’s something that you can reflect on years down the road. Our focus is solely on Carolina and going down there and putting together a 60-minute game. Maybe overtime, whatever it takes to go out there and get a win.”
Fitzgerald, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, has spent his entire career as a Cardinal. He has over 13,000 receiving yards and 98 touchdowns on a resume that may well be Hall of Fame-worthy.
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That gives him considerable gravitas in the Cardinals’ locker room. So coach Bruce Arians leans heavily on Fitzgerald and fellow veterans such as linebacker Dwight Freeney and defensive back Jerraud Powers to reinforce his message.
“It always helps to have guys, all the guys who have been on Super Bowl teams, to be with the younger players and explain to them. The younger players have responded very well to it,” Arians said Thursday, adding players buy in more to veterans’ words than coaches’.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. If I want to get a message to Carson (Palmer), I tell Drew (Stanton, Palmer’s backup at quarterback), you know? He’ll listen to Drew, and sometimes, they tune you out. But, they don’t tune out the veteran players.”
Fitzgerald’s productivity fell off last season (784 yards and two touchdowns) in part because of a series of injuries. There were questions whether the Cardinals would release him rather than carry a $23 million-plus salary-cap figure in 2015.
Cardinals president Michael Bidwell showed faith by retaining Fitzgerald, who has lived up to that faith: His numbers jumped to 1,215 yards on 109 catches and nine touchdowns. Fitzgerald’s play has been essential to the Cardinals contending for the Super Bowl, supplanting the Seattle Seahawks as the top team in the NFC West.
Bidwell joined the family business in 2007 as general counsel after working for several years as a federal prosecutor. He has been key to the upgraded training facilities that were a factor in Freeney choosing the Cardinals over several other suitors to sign him.
The Cardinals once had a terrible reputation around the NFL. That has changed dramatically.
“I’ve always had great belief in Michael Bidwill. I knew he was going to do everything in his power to make sure we were going to be a team that was going to be a force for years to come,” Fitzgerald said. “It started with putting the (practice) bubble in. I remember years ago we would be out here practicing in 110- to 115-degree heat and be worn down by the time we stepped on the field on Sunday. We don’t have those problems anymore.
“The food used to be catered here; now we have an in-house kitchen, all the organic meals, state-of-the-art everything. That’s something he’s done for us.”
There’s been a lot of talk this week that getting Fitzgerald back to the Super Bowl is a major motivation for the Cardinals’ younger players. Fitzgerald is uneasy with that focus falling so hard on him.
“That’s naïve to think that’s the only thing” driving the Cardinals, Fitzgerald said. “Guys want to win because they want to win. That’s what we’re here to do. You play football to win.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell