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LARRY FITZGERALD lined up to the far left of the formation during the Cardinals' preseason opener against the Texans on Aug. 14, leaned forward and burst off the line at the snap of the ball. He sprinted about 15 yards downfield and cut sharply toward the middle as quarterback Matt Leinart zipped a pass toward him.
But the ball was a bit too far in front of Fitzgerald, who had to reach up and out to get it. In hindsight it may have been the best "bad" ball Leinart has ever thrown, because it possibly saved Fitzgerald from a season-ending knee injury. The four-time Pro Bowl wideout's right cleat was off the turf when Houston safety Eugene Wilson came in low and delivered a crunching blow just above his right knee. There was some give in the joint on contact, but it resulted only in a sprained knee ligament instead of a torn one.
Questions linger about whether Fitzgerald will connect with Leinart as well as he did with the retired Kurt Warner, whose 56 touchdown passes over the past two seasons (23 to Fitzgerald) were fifth best in the league. Warner and Fitzgerald shared a special synergy and trust—Warner could count on Fitzgerald to be at a particular spot at a particular time, and Fitzgerald could count on Warner to deliver the ball in stride. Now what?
Fitzgerald invited Leinart, the 10th pick in the 2006 draft and Warner's backup for the last two years, to join him at his wideouts camp in Minnesota this off-season, but Leinart declined because he wanted to work out in the Los Angeles area and be closer to his son. "Everything will be fine," Leinart said during camp. "I've been throwing passes to Larry for five years." If only most of those passes had been completed somewhere besides on the practice field.
It says something about the greatness of Fitzgerald and the inexperience of Leinart that their relationship dominates discussions about the Cardinals' fortunes. Few teams endured as much personnel disruption during the off-season—Warner retired, linebacker Karlos Dansby and free safety Antrel Rolle left as free agents, and only one starter on the offensive line, center Lyle Sendlein, returns at the position he played last season—but what will determine the Cardinals' fate is how Fitzgerald will fare without Warner.
Fitzgerald caught 345 passes for 4,586 yards and 39 touchdowns from Warner over their 60 games together. The duo was particularly lethal in the postseason, when in six games Warner completed 40 passes for 676 yards and nine scores to Fitzgerald. And of course, Warner was the one feeding Fitzgerald on the wideout's record-setting playoff run two years ago.
"Can I be happy if my numbers drop off?" Fitzgerald says. "Yeah. What choice do I have? I'm at the point in my career where I've pretty much achieved all the personal accolades that one can aspire to. At this point I really just want to be on a team that's consistently in the playoffs."
It's possible Fitzgerald will continue to get his numbers, though in a different way. Warner relied on timing and intuition and a largely intermediate passing game that allowed receivers to run with the ball after the catch. But Leinart is more of a downfield passer. He has a stronger arm and is more willing to take chances.
The Cardinals believe that wrinkle will give them more opportunities to stretch defenses—if they can run the ball behind their revamped line as well as they hope. Beanie Wells came on strong at the end of his rookie season last year, and the 6'2", 228-pound back from Ohio State expects to build on his 2009 numbers (793 rushing yards, seven touchdowns). He will push starting back Tim Hightower, who appears leaner and hungry to keep his job.
Fitzgerald is on board with the boosted run game. "I don't think we'll be throwing the ball as much as we did when Kurt was here, because that was something he really excelled at," he says. "That was his strength—going no-huddle and using single-back packages. We will be a lot more balanced, which will create bigger plays down the field for receivers. If that's what it takes for us to win, I'm all for it."