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For established veterans such as Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preseason games are all about limiting risk: Get your timing down, then grab a seat on the bench. Yet there was Fitzgerald in the exhibition opener against the Raiders, making a spectacular one-handed grab along the sideline, then shoving off a defender before cutting back toward the middle of the field, where he might find more yards but also more tacklers.
The next week at training camp, Fitzgerald shook his head and laughed while recalling the play. It was such a rookie move, subjecting his body to potential injury in a game that meant nothing. At the same time it was a reminder of how excited and rejuvenated he feels following the team's acquisition of quarterback Kevin Kolb from the Eagles.
Arizona went through four signal-callers last season, and the only thing memorable about them was their ineptitude: Their combined 60.5 passer rating was 31st in the league. The season was particularly nightmarish for Fitzgerald, who had established himself as one of the league's elite receivers over the previous two years with Kurt Warner delivering the ball. Warner threw for 56 touchdowns in 2008 and '09; after he retired, Arizona's four quarterbacks combined for 10 last year.
"It was tough," says the 28-year-old Fitzgerald. "I know I wasn't the only one struggling through it, but my job is predicated on somebody else getting me the ball. I caught passes from Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel if you include the preseason, and it was difficult not knowing who was going to be back there. That uncertainty plays with you, because if you're a receiver and you beat a guy on a route and the ball's not there, there's no stat that says you won on that route. If your numbers are not where they should be, you're going to get the crooked eye."
Fitzgerald felt himself pressing to make a big play instead of letting one develop. "There were tough catches that I know I can make that I didn't make," Fitzgerald says, shaking his head a year later at the memory of a dropped pass in the end zone in a Monday-night game against the 49ers. "The level of difficulty was high, but I hold myself to the standard that if the ball touches my hands, I should catch it."
Now, though, there's no head-shaking. People within the organization can't remember Fitzgerald's being so happy and excited for a season—and not just because he recently signed an eight-year, $120 million extension that guarantees him $50 million. No, his optimism has to do with the arrival in July of Kolb, who signed a five-year extension, potentially worth $63 million, after being acquired for Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick.
Fitzgerald got to know the laid-back Texan during the off-season, when Kolb stayed at his Paradise City house for a week. They worked out together three times, and Fitzgerald laughs at the initial session, during which the two got a feel for each other. Early on, Fitzgerald lined up wide right and ran a slant over the middle. The ball shot through his fingers and landed well down the field. "When he releases the ball, you don't think that it's coming at you with the velocity that it has, but he has a live arm," says Fitzgerald. "The ball jumps off his hand."
Fitzgerald learned one other thing about the 27-year-old Kolb: "He's a football junkie. It's not a hobby for him. He wants to be great. I'm that same way, so it's great because he'll challenge you." Like he did in the preseason opener at Oakland. As the Cardinals prepared to break the huddle early in the first quarter, Kolb looked at Fitzgerald and told him, "I'm coming to you. Make a play for me." Fitzgerald was covered along the sideline, but Kolb lofted the pass in his direction anyway. That's when Fitzgerald reached up with his left hand and pinned the ball between his helmet and shoulder pads, shoved off the defender with his right hand and ran recklessly into the teeth of the defense.
"Last year was kind of a transition year," says Fitzgerald. "There was a lot of uncertainty about who was going to be and who wasn't going to be in at quarterback. Now I know that this is the guy I'll most likely end my career with. So there's a sense of urgency for me to get a good rapport with him and go out there and make plays for him."
Even in preseason games.