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IN RECENT years wide receivers have come to be known for their outsized egos and the mouths to match. Think Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens, players with whom Haley worked during his time as a coach with the Jets and the Cowboys, respectively. There is none of that with Boldin and Fitzgerald. When the former was upset about his contract in the off-season, for instance, he spoke out one time in training camp, promised not to let it affect his performance and hasn't raised the issue publicly since. He ranks sixth in the league in catches (62), seventh in yards (792) and first in touchdown receptions (10). Fitzgerald is fourth in catches (67), second in yards (939) and tied for third in TDs (six).
"Both those guys look at themselves as being Number 1s, but you never hear them complaining about not getting enough touches," says Rice. "I don't know if Arizona is going to be able to accommodate both of them in the future, but right now those guys are putting the best interest of the team first."
Part of the credit goes to Haley, who spent 11 seasons coaching NFL receivers and learned from working with players such as Johnson and Owens. One lesson was the importance of getting his receivers involved in the game early. Another was to be honest with them about the game plan. When he's spelling out a route, Haley makes a point of explaining why the wideout is running it and how it will set up future plays for him and his teammates. The last thing Haley wants is a player who expects one thing and gets something else. That's when problems arise.
The Cardinals' duo will never publicly demand the ball because it's in neither of their natures. Fitzgerald, the son of a Minneapolis sportswriter, learned about professionalism watching Carter from the sideline as a ball boy for the Vikings. Boldin, who grew up in Pahokee, Fla., received an education in selflessness at Florida State, where he had to share the load with Peter Warrick, Javon Walker and Laveranues Coles. When the Cards drafted Fitzgerald with two years of his eligibility remaining, Boldin—who'd set an NFL rookie record with 101 receptions—welcomed him with open arms.
"Q could have been like, This is some b.s.—I ball out last year, and you do this? You're going to draft this guy, bring him in, pay him all this money?" says Fitzgerald. "Immediately it could have been the start of some mess, but Q chose not to do that. He took me under his wing, brought me over to his house. We watched Monday Night Football together. His girlfriend would cook meals, and I'd play with his son. We started off on the right foot."
With Boldin sidelined for the first six games because of knee surgery, however, the weight of the passing game fell on the rookie. While Fitzgerald was up for the challenge, he lacked the know-how. Being a pro and knowing what it takes to be a pro, he learned, were two different things.
Fitzgerald led the Cardinals with 58 catches for 780 yards that year and tied for the NFC rookie lead with eight touchdown receptions, but there was work to be done. When he returned for his second season, he was nine pounds lighter and more explosive out of his breaks. He also was more intense in practice and more excited during games because of the arrival of two-time MVP Warner to replace Josh McCown.
Fitzgerald earned Pro Bowl honors in two of the next three years, and last off-season he signed a four-year, $40 million deal, making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has used the contract to motivate Fitzgerald, telling him that there are expectations that come with all those zeroes. Fitzgerald politely disagrees with the notion that salary should affect his attitude. He says he'd play and practice the same if he were making $1 million a year.
DON'T MISUNDERSTAND, though. Fitzgerald has the heart of an assassin when it comes to business off the field, just as he does when taking care of business on it. He had no problem using the hammer during his contract negotiations, seeking a deal that would redefine the financial pecking order at his position even as some told him such a contract would hurt the Cardinals' ability to add depth and ultimately affect their long-term prospects.
Both Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves say the organization is committed to a new deal for Boldin, who has two more years remaining on a pact that would pay him $2.75 million in 2009 and $3 million in '10. "We've always said we want to identify our core players and keep them with us, and he's definitely a core guy," says Graves. "We haven't established a timetable [for getting something done], but we definitely plan to address it again."