By Chris Cluff
Such a waste.
It’s what you have to think every time you see a superstar languishing on a horrible team. It has happened to such NFL luminaries as Barry Sanders, Cortez Kennedy and Calvin Johnson, and now it’s happening with Larry Fitzgerald. The Arizona Cardinals’ star wide receiver — who, along with Johnson, is one of the top three receivers in the game — has been stuck on a terrible team ever since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season.
He’s not quite in as bad of shape as Johnson was when he was on an 0-16 team in 2008, and it’s not as horrible as the 1992 Seattle team that went 2-14 as Kennedy earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. But, like Sanders often was in Detroit in the 1990s, Fitzgerald is stuck on a team going nowhere. After a stunning 4-0 start that included a season-opening win over Seattle, the Cards have lost eight straight — four by double digits and four by a touchdown or less.
Fitzgerald has caught passes from three quarterbacks — John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and rookie Ryan Lindley. With Kolb probably out for the rest of the season with separated ribs and Lindley coming off a 10-for-31 performance that netted 72 yards, an interception and no conversions in 15 third-down attempts, the Cardinals are going back to Skelton.
Asked about the instability at quarterback, Fitzgerald told Dave Boling of The News Tribune: “I don’t think it’s really our position to be worried so much about that. We have to do our job. My job is to be able to get open against press coverage and make my plays and do my job. Our quarterbacks have to make their throws; the offensive linemen have to make their blocks; when the running backs get the opportunity to get the ball, they’ve got to make guys miss. That’s what it comes down to; the game is won by individual matchups.”
He should know. He and Skelton teamed to beat the Hawks in overtime in the finale last season. Fitzgerald made two amazing catches on the winning drive, and it later was revealed he suffered a bruised lung — probably on the diving catch that set up the field goal.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll was in awe, telling reporters, “The performance of Larry Fitzgerald…he is an incredible football player. He is as good as you can get in this game, and he showed it. I just marvel at the things he does. He has done it before, and he did it again, and it proves who he is.”
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald has not had many chances to prove it on the worst offense in the league this season. He caught one pass for 23 yards last week in a putrid 7-6 loss to the Jets, whom Seattle tromped 28-7 earlier this season. For the season, the four-time All-Pro has just 56 catches for 650 yards and four touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 75-867-5, which would be his worst statistical season since his rookie year. He seems destined to snap a five-year run of 80-plus receptions and 1,000 yards.
So, how does he handle being on non-winning team for the third straight year (5-11 in 2010 and 8-8 in 2011)?
“Just be professional. This is our job, our livelihood,” he told Boling. “You gotta go out there and work hard every day and give it your best to try to get yourself out of it. I think you have to have the mindset that you want to be a part of the solution not part of the problem. I just think that’s how I approach it and I think that a lot of guys on our team approach it the same way. For some reason we just haven’t been able to get it done these last eight weeks and it’s been extremely tough psychologically, mentally, physically … it’s just been grueling. We desperately need to get back on track. We’re playing for pride, we’re playing for our livelihood, for our jobs, so we have a lot at stake.”
The Hawks have more at stake as they angle for a playoff spot and chase the San Francisco 49ers in the division. Fitzgerald could give them headaches as they go without suspended cornerback Brandon Browner and injured third corner Marcus Trufant. Walter Thurmond will start alongside Richard Sherman.
But the Cards can’t run the ball either, so if the Hawks decide to blitz Skelton, he should have trouble. And it wouldn’t be surprising if Lindley ended up in the game either. The Hawks knocked Skelton out of the opener this season, and Kolb rallied them in the fourth quarter to a 20-16 win.
Of course, this time the Cardinals are in Seattle, where the Hawks are 5-0 this season and 2-0 against Arizona under Carroll. And rookie QB Russell Wilson is exponentially better now than he was in his first game, when he and his receivers failed to connect on four passes into the end zone at the end.
“I think that first game helped me improve and helped me win some games at the end of games throughout the course of the season so far,” Wilson told reporters Thursday, per The News Tribune. “The first time out, I wish I could’ve done something just to win that game there at Arizona. Now, we’re playing at home. We’re playing at CenturyLink, and it’s our second go-round at it. So you have to figure out what you did well, what you didn’t do so well. Figure out what they did well, and figure out how we can attack them.”
Fitzgerald knows how to attack the Seahawks, but he also knows how hard it is to win in Seattle.
“First of all, playing Seattle in Seattle,” he said, “there’s nobody even a close second for difficult places to play in the NFL. It’s the most hostile, loud experience you’ll have in the NFL. You’re fighting against a lot of different things — not only a great defense, but the weather, the fans, the noise, you can’t hear yourself think. It’s a tremendous atmosphere to play in.”
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Seahawks news, see CBS Sports Seattle.
Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.