When it comes to the matchup between the New England Patriots defense and the Arizona Cardinals offense this week, most eyes will be on the major battles both on and off the field: Bill Belichick and Kliff Kingsbury trying to outsmart each other; Stephon Gilmore going one-on-one against DeAndre Hopkins; New England’s front seven trying to contain Kyler Murray. However, there is obviously a lot more to watch.
For example, the Patriots’ defensive backs against one of the most productive wide receivers pro football has ever seen. Larry Fitzgerald may no longer be the Cardinals’ number one pass catcher — that role belongs to offseason trade acquisition Hopkins now — but he is still a capable player, and one worth keeping a close eye on at all times if only for his status as the heart and soul of this Cardinals team.
This status was also acknowledged by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a media conference call on Wednesday, when he praised Fitzgerald and likened him to another all-time great.
“Larry’s a very dedicated football player, he works extremely hard,” said Belichick. “He’s very knowledgable in all phases of the game but particularly the passing game and techniques, training, fundamentals. He’s, I would say, to receivers what Peyton Manning was to quarterbacks in terms of that type of total obsession of knowing everything about the position and how to do things and convey those to his teammates.”
While some will point out that Peyton Manning, and not Tom Brady, is the quarterback mentioned by Belichick, the simple fact that he compares Fitzgerald to one of the best QBs ever speaks for itself: the veteran wide receiver is a legend in his own right, courtesy of the fact that he has consistently been an elite wide receiver since entering the NFL in 2004.
Since then, he has appeared in a combined 269 regular season and playoff contest, posting some truly outstanding numbers along the way. Fitzgerald has caught 1,478 passes for 18,361 yards and 130 touchdowns — clearly leading the organization’s record books, and also ranking second in league history in the first two categories behind only Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (and leading the league in both since the start of the salary cap era).
“He’s had tremendous production, I mean other than Jerry rice, those two guys are really at the top of the production list in just about every area,” added Belichick. “His longevity has been remarkable, and I think that’s a testament to his physical training. But he has great awareness and instincts as well as all the other things that go with being a receiver.
“He has tremendous hands, concentration, ability to make clutch plays, and really can match up against most every type of defender. Finds a way to win with the skills that he has and his style of play. He’s just a tremendous player that has had a tremendous career. I don’t know how you could do much more than what he’s done in the amount of time that he’s done it, and he’s had tremendous durability and production.”
While Fitzgerald no longer leads the list of the NFL’s best wide receivers — an honor that too might belong to his teammate DeAndre Hopkins — he is still an important piece in Arizona’s aerial attack: quarterback Kyler Murray has targeted him 57 times so far this season, with the 11-time Pro Bowl coming away with 43 catches for 336 yards. Even at age 37, he remains a viable threat as a receiver and with the ball in his hands.
Belichick’s praise is therefore not just a nod to an all-time great, but also applies to the upcoming matchup. Even though he may be more of a footnote compared to years past, Fitzgerald can still make game-changing plays whenever the ball comes his way and rally his troops through leadership and example.