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An anthem, the “itch” and Fitz’s return

Posted by Darren Urban on February 6, 2017 – 11:51 am

The moment, Fitz said, boiled up when Mike Phillips was playing the national anthem in Atlanta before the NFC Championship game between the Falcons and Packers. The Cardinals wide receiver said he was “just into it.”

“I was sitting there and the fire was burning,” Fitzgerald said. “I wanted to be out there.”

That’s what told Fitz he needed to play again in 2017, something he announced last week.

“I called (Bruce Arians), I said, ‘Coach, I’ve got that itch,’ ” Fitzgerald said the other night, after he was awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year. “He was like, ‘Don’t rush, don’t make a hasty decision. Take your time.’ We talked again, I had dinner with Coach (Friday) night. I love that man, I love playing for him, he brings a great energy to our team and a toughness that is contagious.”

That’s what Arians had predicted, that the players would eventually have that itch. (Of course, when Arians said that, it was after the NFC Championship game and after Fitz said he was “pretty sure” he knew his decision, so B.A. was working with inside information.) Fitzgerald acknowledged all the things expected to have impacted his wavering about playing in the first place — feeling “pretty bad” after the season both physically and psychologically.

Spending time in Houston last week wasn’t ideal either.

“It sucks coming here (to the Super Bowl) and enjoying the pageantry of the event but not actually participating in the event,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not the same. We all play for that. Hopefully we get off to a fast start and get it going this year.”

The Cardinals are waiting to hear from quarterback Carson Palmer about his status for 2017, but at this point it feels like a foregone conclusion Palmer will indeed play.

“We all hope that Carson comes back, not to put any pressure on him,” Fitzgerald said. “But we are a very, very good team when Carson is playing quarterback for us.”

6th Annual NFL Honors


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Reassessing receivers after Fitz news

Posted by Darren Urban on February 2, 2017 – 9:50 am

So Larry Fitzgerald is coming back, a boon to the Cardinals — at least for 2017. After moving on from Michael Floyd (which was probable as 2016 moved on and Floyd heading into free agency, regardless of his off-field issues), the Cards needed a Fitz anchor at wide receiver. But for the long-term, does it change a lot? The Cardinals still need to consider a big receiver in the draft, I’d think, a guy who can help fill the Fitz void when that comes sooner rather than later (and the way this all has gone, it feels like Fitzgerald is going to want to hang it up after 2017.)

Again, the biggest question after Fitzgerald when it comes to wide receiver is the ability for Smokey Brown to return to form. If Brown is able to play next season like he did for most of 2015 (Brown did battle hamstring issues that year and it might have been the sickle cell issue), the Cardinals should be fine. J.J. Nelson was emerging the last part of the season. Again, there probably needs to be a long-term “big” receiver plan post-Fitz, but it’s not crucial. The return of Fitz does ease the pressure — and eliminates a potential hole — that could have forced something different at the 13th overall pick. Then again, if Clemson’s Mike Williams is still on the board …

(Besides, good passing games come down to the quarterback often. If Carson Palmer retires along with Fitz, the Cards’ QB situation will be priority 1, 2 and 3. And probably 4 and 5.)

No, you don’t forget running back David Johnson either. He’ll play a huge role in the passing game again, I am sure. But again, if Brown and Jaron Brown (torn ACL) can come back healthy, along with Fitz and Nelson, the Cardinals’ receiving corps should be fine for this season.

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Fitzgerald won’t play in Pro Bowl

Posted by Darren Urban on January 23, 2017 – 2:49 pm

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald pulled out of the Pro Bowl Monday due to injury, and is being replaced by Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, according to Seahawks.com. Fitz was banged up by the end of the season — which he noted with the bumps and bruises he said he wanted to recover from before making a decision in terms of playing in 2017. It was the 10th time Fitzgerald was named to the Pro Bowl.

Fitzgerald was one of three Cardinals’ Pro Bowlers. The team is now down to one — cornerback Patrick Peterson. Running back David Johnson’s chance to play was derailed when he sprained his MCL in the season finale against the Rams.

Fitzgerald was just named a finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award. No Pro Bowl means the next time he could face the media — and questions about his future — would be at the NFL Honors show on Super Bowl eve, if he happens to win the Payton award.

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Arians and his torn rotator cuff

Posted by Darren Urban on January 23, 2017 – 10:17 am

Even Bruce Arians ended up with a significant injury this season.

The injuries hit the Cardinals much harder in 2016 — when they used a total of 70 players during the 16 games — than 2015 — when the total was 56. (The 70 players that appeared in at least one game was the most for the Cardinals, in fact, since they used 74 during the 2005 season.) That list, of course, doesn’t include Arians, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hurt.

And we’re not talking his two separate hospital stints either. No, this was an injury — a torn rotator cuff, in fact, which Arians confirmed to azcentral’s Dan Bickley. Arians said his left rotator cuff was “torn completely through” when wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hugged him in celebration of Chandler Catanzaro’s game-winning field goal in Seattle on Christmas Eve.

Arians had hinted at such. In his final press conference, Arians noted “my shoulder that Larry screwed up. I just got it injected and will see if I have surgery on it.” He jokingly said Fitz would pay if he couldn’t golf, but apparently, Arians is making do on the course. (We’ll see how — if — he can get it done next week in the Waste Management Phoenix Open pro-am.) And unlike Fitzgerald, who wanted to let his body heal before making a decision about playing in 2017 (no decision yet), Arians knows he’ll be around in 2017, regardless of his shoulder situation.

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Cardinals-Packers, (watching) one year later

Posted by Darren Urban on January 16, 2017 – 10:02 am

One year ago, Larry Fitzgerald did it again. The last hurrah of the 2015 season was today, January 16, as the Cardinals outlasted the Packers in overtime of the divisional round of the playoffs because Carson Palmer spun away from danger to find Fitz and then Fitz raced down the field in front of a University of Phoenix Stadium filled with screaming fans. Then came the shovel touchdown, the trip to the NFC Championship, and many, many smiles.

(The next week didn’t go so well.)

It’s good that last year’s Packers weren’t as smoking hot as this year’s version, after watching Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.

The Cardinals have had a couple of epic playoff matchups with Rodgers and the Packers. Can’t argue that. Last year’s game might not have been as fun to watch all the way through as the previous postseason tilt, but the end certainly was thrilling, to the Floyd tip-drill to the Hail Mary to all that overtime stuff. Now the league has posted the full game on youtube.com, so you can watch the whole thing again if you’d like.


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Playoff withdrawal? Remember Cards-Pack

Posted by Darren Urban on January 8, 2017 – 9:29 am

Sure, with the playoffs starting this weekend you can stew about a team that was top 10 in offense and defense, seventh in the league in point-differential, scored more than 400 points and lead the league in sacks and yet under .500 and not in the postseason. But with it being Wild Card weekend and all, and the Packers once again playing, there is always the opportunity to go down memory lane. Maybe you’d like to re-read about last year’s playoff win over the Packers, or watch the highlights. But if you are looking for more — and perhaps, with Kurt Warner again on the verge of the Hall of Fame — how about a full replay of the Cardinals’ 51-45 wild Wild card win over the Packers in the 2009 playoffs?

You remember that one, of course. Warner had more touchdown passes (5) than incompletions (4). Larry Fitzgerald scored a pair of touchdowns (and kept the ball after each, FYI.) And it went to overtime with a dramatic ending, just like Cards-Pack 2015.

No, it’s not a real game this weekend. But it’s something.


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All-pro Cardinals, retirements, and other stuff

Posted by Darren Urban on January 6, 2017 – 2:36 pm

It’s only fitting David Johnson was named AP all-pro this season, and while I understand why Ezekiel Elliott earned the running back nod on the team, I personally felt like Johnson earned it. It’s good they changed the rules to allow for a “flex” player (instead of a fullback) because it would have been wrong for Johnson not to be a first-team this year. But I can’t really argue with the other decisions. I’ve heard from a couple of people about Patrick Peterson, but the players that earned the first- and second-team slots — Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Janoris Jenkins, Casey Hayward, Malcom Butler — all had really good years. It was good to see Calais Campbell with a second-team nod. He was good all season but really came on in the second half of the year. It’s too bad the whole team couldn’t have that consistency in their playoff push.

It was interesting to me as I looked back over the years to see what Cardinals made first-team AP all-pro that Larry Fitzgerald earned that honor only once — fittingly, in 2008, when he not only was great in the regular season but had the best playoff run any receiver has ever (and while I know there are arguments to be made for a couple of other guys, having witnessed what Fitz did in those four games, you’ll never convince me otherwise that anyone ever did it better.)

— A quick thought on the ongoing Fitz-Carson Palmer retirement speculation. Nothing has changed for me. I have long believed and still believe Palmer will play in 2017. I think if, for whatever reason, Palmer did leave, that would seal Fitzgerald’s decision. But like I said, I believe Palmer is going to play. I still think Fitz hasn’t made up his mind. Won’t surprise me whatever decision he makes (so I guess I’m saying I think he’s 50-50.) I know he took the ball for his last catch/touchdown, but he has kept significant footballs before — and don’t forget, this one did net him an NFL receptions-title — and besides, it can’t hurt to take it just in case. If he comes back, fine. I don’t think the football gives any hints, other than he is considering retirement, which we knew already.

— Don’t forget to take a listen to our Cardinals Underground wrapup season podcast.

— In case you missed it (and maybe you might’ve, since this is the first year I didn’t put it in the blog), here was my annual roster breakdown, along with who is a free agent-to-be.

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Friday before the Rams – and season’s end

Posted by Darren Urban on December 30, 2016 – 3:27 pm

One of the friends and family of Frostee Rucker that will be at the game Sunday in Los Angeles will be his first football coach. Rucker was 6 at the time. He later ended up playing at USC, and so will be back at the Los Angeles Coliseum playing for the first time since college.

“It’s almost like full circle in a sense,” Rucker said.

The season will come to an end as well. Can’t say it’s full circle, since at the beginning expectations were so high and here we are, on the final day of practice and it’s not even January. That certainly wasn’t the plan back in August. The mood was good this week, I’m sure in part because of the win in Seattle. They’d like to finish off with the revenge win against the Rams. “You build your team to win in the division,” coach Bruce Arians said, and, despite all the ups and downs, if the Cardinals win Sunday, they will have gone 4-1-1 in the NFC West.

That’s a record that Arians admitted, had he known before the season, he’d have assumed they would have won the division.

— Here’s another stat (oh, those sometimes misleading stats) that also would’ve made you think they could’ve (would’ve?) won the division: There are only three teams in the NFL ranked in the top 10 in offense and defense. The Cardinals (eighth in offense, third in defense) are one of them. The others? Playoff-bound New England and Pittsburgh.

— The Cardinals have not lost an NFC West road game since 2014. They’ve won five straight heading into this one.

— It’s amazing to think the Cardinals will be starting their fifth different right guard Sunday. It’s gone Evan Mathis to Earl Watford to John Wetzel to Earl Watford to Taylor Boggs and now to Evan Boehm.

— For those wondering, I had a chance to ask Carson Palmer about the late slant pass to J.J. Nelson. It indeed was an audible.

— The crazy stat of the week: Running back David Johnson is averaging 10.7 yards per catch (77 receptions). Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is averaging 9.6 yards per catch (102 receptions). Yes, Fitz has more catches, but you’d never think a running back would be ahead of a receiver.

— Speaking of Fitzgerald, Arians said he would not lobby the veteran wide receiver to return in 2017. “It’s up to Larry,” Arians said of Fitzgerald playing another year. “I’ve got my fingers crossed. Hopefully he will come back but that’s strictly up to him.”

— Arians does have other business with Fitz, though. On Chandler Catanzaro’s game-winning field goal last week, Fitz celebrated with the coach a bit too hard. The jumping bear hug hurt Arians’ right shoulder, and he admitted Friday it still hurts. What did the MRI show? “Haven’t taken one yet,” Arians said with a chuckle. “I don’t even want to know.”

There could still be a price to pay, though.

“If I can’t play golf this year (in the offseason), I’ll be driving one of those real nice cars,” Arians added with a grin.

— The in-flux offensive line, whatever its shortcomings, has allowed only two sacks total the last two games.

“Proud of them,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “That’s what I told them Wednesday. Just proud of them.”

— Palmer doesn’t like sitting out Wednesday practice but he never really fought it either. The Cardinals put a lot of time and effort into the sports science of workload, hits and repetitions — led by assistant strength coach Anthony Piroli — to judge such things. Palmer’s Wednesday work is part of that science.

“There’s reason for it,” Palmer said. “There’s data behind it. It’s amazing the stuff that they keep track of and the information that you get back from that. It makes sense. I see why they do it, and like I said, they’re paid professionals. That’s their job and that’s their role, and you don’t have a choice but to listen.”

— This Rod Tidwell “Football Life” trailer is pretty good, NFL Network. I’m going to stick with my Tidwell effort, however.

— Congrats to Johnson for being named MVP by the Arizona chapter of the PWFA. Same for Kevin Minter for taking the “Good Guy” award for his dealing with the media. Truth be told, there are a bunch of guys that could win the Good Guy award — Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson, Tony Jefferson, D.J. Humphries, Tyrann Mathieu and A.Q. Shipley immediately come to mind, and that’s not a total list — but the truth is, we have a very good locker room when it comes to this part of the job.

— Another season (almost) done. That’s 17 in the books for me. Where does the time go?

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Keim on the future of the Cards’ receivers

Posted by Darren Urban on December 26, 2016 – 8:22 am

One of the big things Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim is going to have to deal with this offseason is the receivers room. It could be in major flux. Michael Floyd is already gone, Larry Fitzgerald could retire, and Smoke Brown is still trying to fully handle his sickle-cell issues. Monday, during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7, Keim spoke on many of those players.

When it comes it Fitz, “he still loves the game and still plays at a high level,” Keim said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he should play next year.” Of course, Keim added, that will be up to Fitz. J.J. Nelson was fantastic in Seattle with 132 yards on three catches, including two giant plays that boosted the win. As far as him as a potential No. 2 receiver, “I’m not sure what his ceiling is, I just know he is a big-play guy.” He did say he thinks receivers coach Darryl Drake has helped Nelson become more physical. (But I’d agree, I think Nelson is developing into a nice and needed piece in the offense, but I don’t see him as a potential big-volume guy week-to-week.)

As for Brown, Keim acknowledged it is “always a concern when you can’t put a finger on exactly what is happening” when it comes to Brown’s health. But he said Brown will see specialists as soon as the offseason ends so that he and the Cardinals can find the proper way for both Brown to be healthy and for him to find again what was making him special on the field. “He’s a guy we are counting on,” Keim added.

— Keim has been very impressed — other than his foolish taunting penalty — with tight end Jermaine Gresham. The Cardinals have needed some emotional fire on offense, and Gresham definitely helps with that. “His physicality, mindset and passion for the game is something that has really excited me this year,” Keim said, noting Gresham’s effort in blocking more than anything. It’ll be interesting to see what Gresham does as a free agent, after signing here for little last season when he could’ve gotten a lot more money elsewhere. (And he needs to avoid the terrible penalties because of his emotions too.)

— Not surprisingly, he had praise for the offensive line, given the circumstances. “If you told me in August we’d beat Seattle in Seattle with John Wetzel and Earl Watford at tackle and Evan Boehm at guard, it’d certainly make me wonder,” Keim said. “For the most part those guys did the job.”

Carson Palmer was under pressure more than once but he was sacked only once and physically, the offensive line stayed toe-to-toe with a much-more celebrated opponent.

— There were a couple of throws he thought Palmer would’ve wanted back, but other than that, Palmer was sharp, Keim said. “He’s a competitor and true pro,” Keim said. “He’s been very, very good the last several weeks.”

— Another young player who held up was cornerback-turned-safety Harlan Miller, who played every snap at free safety when Tony Jefferson got hurt on the punt team before he even played a defensive play. Miller, by the way, hadn’t played safety before. “It was interesting,” Keim said. “On Friday, when B.A. came into my office and I let him know we were going to put Tyrann on IR, he told me that if Tony or D.J. Swearinger went down, we’d be in trouble just from a depth standpoint. Sure enough, first play of the game, Tony Jefferson is out.

“Harlan trots on to the field, and to his credit, the guy has never played safety before, coach Nick Rapone and James Bettcher put him in a position where he made a few plays and didn’t hurt the team. He’s another young guy who stepped up.”

— Finally, a good day for special teams. “That’s a group that’s been maligned and rightfully so,” Keim said. “But they stepped up to the plate.”


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Merry Christmas! Seahawks aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 24, 2016 – 9:28 pm

Harlan Miller wasn’t necessarily supposed to play. Heck, he wasn’t even going to be on the roster, if Tharold Simon hadn’t been cut last week. And he’s a cornerback.

But there he was, after Tony Jefferson – one of the few defensive backs who has stayed healthy all season – sprained his MCL on his first play, on punt coverage. Tyrann Mathieu was already on IR, Tyvon Branch too. Marcus Cooper was out. Justin Bethel used to be a safety, but he was needed at corner. So they sent Miller in to play free safety.

Keep in mind, Miller hasn’t practiced at safety.

“The only thing I could remember was (defensive backs) coach (Nick) Rapone in the safeties meeting telling them to stay deep,” Miller said. “That’s pretty much what I did.”

“I kind of know what a safety does. I just listened a lot.”

It was that kind of game Saturday. Fill in where you can. Hope it holds up. No, the secondary isn’t going to put this on the wall of fame, not with the way Russell Wilson diced them up in the second half. But within the circumstances, it was exactly what they needed. Justin Bethel played much better. Brandon Williams struggled, but he did enough – and his effort on the Tyler Lockett bomb, while unfortunately sending Lockett off injured on a cart, stopped the Seahawks from scoring any points given the Cards’ goalline stand.

— The offensive line too, Evan Boehm, in at right guard for Taylor Boggs who was in for Earl Watford who was in for Evan Mathis. Everyone who thought the Cardinals would be able to score 34 points in Seattle under those circumstances, raise your hand.

— Carson Palmer was great. His stats weren’t as gaudy as Wilson, but Palmer was a man who led his team in a situation where they needed it. Palmer already said he is coming back. Yes, I think the Cardinals should and will draft a quarterback of the future. But to anyone who thinks Palmer should step away and not quarterback this team in 2017, I think that’s crazy.

— Larry Fitzgerald was not a happy man the last couple of weeks. The losing had reached him, the Floyd situation, and he just looked down in the dumps. When the retirement stuff came up, it’s understandable why he’d consider it. I don’t think anything was determined Saturday – but it was a happy Fitz in the locker room. Everyone was happy, but it was particularly nice to see with No. 11.

— J.J. Nelson makes the best of his touches, doesn’t he?

— David Johnson cracks 100 yards. I didn’t think it was possible with the way the game was going, and then he blew past it late. Aside from his fumble – which was three-points-costly – he was the rock on offense. Grinding, grinding, grinding, near 100 yards rushing alone. And then that 29-yard catch to set up the game-winning field goal – MVP-esque.

“I was messing with Steve (Keim) earlier, we need to get his contract done right now, because after every game he getting more and more expensive,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s going to be like ten percent owner of the franchise.”

— (Just as a reminder, Johnson’s contract cannot be re-done or extended until after the 2017 season, per the CBA.)

— Boehm made a mistake on the Cards’ next-to-last drive, blowing his assignment to let Palmer get hit and force an incompletion. Center A.Q. Shipley let him know about it as they came off the field.

“That was on me,” Boehm said. “I thought I lost the game for us. Told myself if we got another opportunity I had to reprove myself that I belonged out there.”

— Fellow rookie offensive lineman Cole Toner got his first work on offense too, just like Boehm had done earlier in the season – as a lead blocker for Johnson.

— With the schedule a little warped this week and players off Monday, I’ll hold my weekly chat Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.

— Have to be happy for Chandler Catanzaro. It’s been a rough year, and I know sometimes fans don’t want to hear this, but he is loved in that locker room  and there isn’t a guy in there who wasn’t happy to see him come through.

— The Cardinals are now 3-0 with Palmer in Seattle. They have a confidence now.

— This is way too long on Christmas Eve. We’re heading back to Phoenix as I post this, and soon the Cardinals (and myself) will be headed home to be with our families. It’ll be a much better holiday for all involved.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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