Larry Fitzgerald came to the Arizona Cardinals as a third overall pick in 2004. In 2011, he signed an eight-year, $126-million contract. While Fitzgerald remains a fan favorite in Arizona, his less-than-stellar 2012 performance led Forbes magazine to crown him one of the 10 "Most Overpaid Players in the NFL." After completing just 71 catches, 798 yards and four touchdowns last season, the NFL receiver has kicked off the 2013 season with a hamstring injury. After turning 30 on Aug. 31, he knows he has fewer days ahead of him in his NFL career.
If you love online sports betting, then you're probably wondering whether to bank on Fitzgerald recovering from his injury. You're probably also wondering how his relationship with Arizona's new quarterback Carson Palmer, and new head coach Bruce Arians, could affect his performance. Fitzgerald is one of the most beloved and well-paid players in Arizona Cardinals history, but even Steve Keim, the Cardinals GM, has said publicly that Fitzgerald "is being challenged" this season.
Larry Fitzgerald's numbers weren't great last year, but they look different when you place them in context. The University of Phoenix Stadium has been a revolving door for quarterbacks since Kurt Warner left in 2009. In 2010, Arizona played four quarterbacks: Derek Anderson, Rich Bartel, Max Hall and John Skelton. The Cards traded for Philadelphia QB Kevin Kolb in 2011, but he didn't even finish the season. Then, in 2012, Arizona rotated Skelton, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Lindley.
Even a wide receiver as good as Fitzgerald can't work miracles; he needs a QB that can actually throw the football in his direction. To stop the QB merry-go-round, Keim brought Carson Palmer over from the Oakland Raiders for the 2013 season. For the Raiders, Palmer has been a quiet achiever. With little fanfare, he put up 4,000 yards last season. Most analysts predict Palmer will thrive under Coach Arians' vertical-passing offense. With a QB that can pass, Fitzgerald has a chance to mount a comeback this season.
To shake things up for the Cardinals, Keim also brought in Bruce Arians. He's widely regarded as one of the best offensive strategists in the NFL. He worked as offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as serving as an assistant coach for numerous NFL teams. Last year, he did double-duty as the Colts' interim head coach and offensive coordinator, filling in for Chuck Pagano while Pagano underwent leukemia treatment. At Indianapolis, Arians was named the AP 2012 NFL Head Coach of the Year. He signed a four-year contract with the Cardinals in January.
Arians calls bold plays and encourages his QBs to throw deep. The system is a complex offense that Arians continued to run, even when the Colts' offensive line was picked off by injuries. Without the first-string offensive line to protect him, Colts QB Andrew Luck was knocked down more often than any other QB in the NFL last year. From his point of view, vertical passes get teams into the end zone a lot faster than horizontal dinking and dunking. For Fitzgerald, this means learning three positions as wideout because Arians expects WRs to run deep-route combinations.
Running the Arians offense requires agility from a QB. Palmer has to prove he is still nimble enough, after 10 years in the NFL, to run that offense. Fitzgerald is learning Arians WRs don't squat in holes and wait for the pass. While Arians doesn't hesitate to go deep, he also encourages QBs to take the short route if they can hit a receiver in stride, who has a clear path down the field. They run through zones, working to get down the field, whether they're headed for the deep catch or hugging the short ball on the run.
Once Fitzgerald recovers from his tweaked hamstring, he'll get plenty of chances to improve on last year's numbers. Still, he has a long way to go to prove he's worth $126 million. Steve Keim, for his part, is pretty optimistic. "Once he gets this system down," said Keim, "his career will flourish under Bruce Arians."
About the Author: Gerry Kemp is a rabid NFL fan and fantasy football addict. His family expects to hear from him again after the 2014 Super Bowl.