AFTER THE Cardinals drafted him out of Florida State in the second round in 2003, Anquan Boldin heard all the talk about how wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies. His Arizona debut? Ten catches, 217 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener at Detroit. Boldin couldn't help but wonder what the fuss was about.
He stopped wondering the next Sunday. When Boldin jogged to his position in the slot, he saw a Seahawks linebacker immediately across from him, a cornerback crouching five yards behind the 'backer and a safety sitting over the top. Boldin caught eight passes, but they went for only 62 total yards, and there were no trips across the goal line.
"I'm looking at it like, Man, y'all really don't want me to touch the ball today," Boldin recalls. "When you see things like that, you appreciate having another receiver on the team who can make plays. I've never been against having a guy on the other side, because the more talent you have on the field, the easier it makes your job."
Boldin's cavalry arrived the next year, when the Cardinals drafted Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt with the No. 3 pick. Since then, the two have not only established themselves as individual stars, with a pair of Pro Bowl appearances each, but they've also joined forces to become the best pass-catching tandem in the league—with the potential for even greater things. In their first four seasons together Boldin and Fitzgerald combined for 642 receptions. That's more than such legendary duos as the Steelers' Lynn Swann and John Stallworth (227), the 49ers' Jerry Rice and John Taylor (443) and the Rams' Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt (613). Only Cris Carter and Randy Moss (645) of the Vikings had more.
But catches alone do not determine greatness. Boldin, 28, and Fitzgerald, 25, lead the league with 129 combined receptions, but they need to showcase their skills when it matters most: the playoffs. On Sunday in Seattle the two took their biggest step yet toward their first postseason appearance, teaming for 23 catches and 337 yards in a 26--20 victory that pushed the Cardinals to 7--3 for the first time since 1977, when the franchise was in St. Louis.
Quarterback Kurt Warner found Boldin 13 times for 186 yards and Fitzgerald 10 times for 151, their most productive combined day ever and only the third time two teammates each had at least 10 catches and 150 yards in a game. Warner continued to make his case for league MVP, finishing with 32 completions in 44 attempts for 395 yards and a touchdown, but he's getting plenty of help from the acrobatic grabs and after-the-catch athleticism of his receivers. "Boldin will run over you, he'll run through you, he'll run around you," says Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "He's almost like a back who has speed playing wide receiver. And Fitzgerald is just a beast."
For all their physical similarities—Boldin is 6'1" and 217 pounds and Fitzgerald 6'3" and 220—their games are substantially different. Consider two plays from last Sunday:
On second-and-one from the Cards' 20 in the first quarter, Warner took a snap, immediately turned to his left and fired a quick pass outside to Boldin. The play was designed merely to move the chains, but the muscular Boldin isn't one to settle. He snatched the ball without letting it touch his body, burst through cornerback Kelly Jennings's attempted tackle and headed down the sideline. There he sidestepped safety Brian Russell en route to a 45-yard gain that was the longest of the afternoon. The Cardinals' philosophy with Boldin: Zip the pass to him as quickly as possible, and let him use his power to pile up yards.
Early in the following quarter Arizona had first down at its five. Warner noticed Seattle was playing Fitzgerald one-on-one on the outside. Fitzgerald hadn't been the first option when Arizona broke the huddle, but he was when Warner got to the line. The quarterback took a short drop and lofted a pass down the sideline. Fitzgerald uncoiled skyward over the defensive back, like the balletic Swann pulling off one of his Super Bowl grabs, for a 33-yard gain. The Cardinals' philosophy with Fitzgerald: Get the ball to him outside the numbers, and let him exploit his singular blend of size, hands and finesse. "Anytime we get Larry in a one-on-one situation," says Warner, "he becomes the primary."
The players are also distinctive in how they view their jobs. Fitzgerald will tell you he's a receiver and his goal is to be the best of all time, something Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley believes is possible if he expands his game beyond perimeter catches. And Boldin? He almost scoffs at being called a receiver. "I'm a football player," says Boldin, who also has seven carries for 60 yards, running out of Arizona's version of the Wildcat. "Receiver is something they call me just because they have to put something down on paper."