NEARLY SIX hours after a heartbreaking 27--23 loss in Super Bowl XLIII, Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald slipped away from family members at the team hotel as smoothly as he had separated himself from the Steelers' secondary in the fourth quarter on Sunday. He wanted a quiet spot as he pondered the significance of his first postseason.
The fifth-year pro with the long dreadlocks and jaw-dropping skills wasn't just good, he was dominant. He broke every major receiving record for a single playoffs, with 30 catches, 546 yards and seven touchdowns, and he set another mark with four consecutive games of at least 100 receiving yards. "I guess I set the bar so high for myself that every time I'm in the postseason I'm going to be measured off what I did," he said softly.
At a time when he could have been savoring his accomplishments, Fitzgerald already was issuing a challenge to himself for the coming year. Despite a four-year, $40 million contract that makes him the highest-paid player at his position, the 25-year-old Fitzgerald insists he hasn't arrived as a premier receiver. "Not yet," he said late Sunday night. "I'm taking the same approach Jerry Rice took. He was a 10-time All-Pro, and that never meant anything to him. Guys are going to be prepared for me every week. I'm going to have to get myself in the best condition I've ever been in."
After watching Fitzgerald torch the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles in the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Steelers were determined to take him out of the game. They mixed coverages and consistently committed two defenders to him, forcing quarterback Kurt Warner to throw elsewhere. Through the first three quarters, Fitzgerald had only one reception, for 12 yards.
But over the game's final 11 minutes he took over, catching six passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Only one receiver had more yards in an entire game against Pittsburgh's top-ranked pass defense this year. And the two TDs—a one-yard leap over cornerback Ike Taylor on a fade route and a 64-yard catch-and-run on a slant pattern—helped the Cardinals take a 23--20 lead with 2:37 left.
"The great ones—the Michael Jordans, the Derek Jeters—step up in the big games," Fitzgerald said during the week. "The challenge is when people know things are going to be run through you but you still deliver."
Fitzgerald's desire to meet that challenge caused him to step out of character briefly. On the first snap of the fourth quarter he ran a deep route down the Arizona sideline only to see another short pass go to a different receiver. As he jogged back to the huddle, he stopped in front of offensive coordinator Todd Haley and gestured to him: Get me involved!
The split-second break in composure revealed a lot. Fitzgerald knows he can get better, but he also feels that he can't be covered, regardless of the names or the number of players assigned to him.
When coach Ken Whisenhunt spotted Fitzgerald after the game, he told his receiver how proud he was of him. The meaning ran much deeper than playoff records.
In the past Fitzgerald was a loner. He never felt comfortable being a vocal leader. But Whisenhunt noticed a transformation this postseason. During Super Bowl week Fitzgerald ended practices with reminders to teammates about seizing the moment.
"He has that special quality that can lead people, and I've seen him grow into that role," says Whisenhunt. "That's what you need out of your great players. If he continues to work, like I have no doubt that he will, he's only going to get better as a leader and a player."
Which means the bar will continue to rise even higher.
SO CLOSE Fitzgerald's two fourth-quarter touchdowns nearly brought the Cardinals their first title in more than six decades.
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