It has been almost a decade since Larry Fitzgerald set the NFL postseason ablaze. In the playoffs following the 2008 campaign, the Cardinals receiver caught 30 passes for 546 yards and seven touchdowns—all three marks still NFL records—as his team came mere seconds, and toe-tapping inches, from a surprise Super Bowl title.
That playoff run occurred a long time ago. Kurt Warner was Fitzgerald’s quarterback and Matt Leinart the backup; Edgerrin James led the team in rushing; Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston joined Fitzgerald in the 1,000-yard receiving club. Those teammates have all since retired. Fitzgerald, conversely, is still making plays.
His Cardinals team admittedly lost on Monday night, falling 28-17 to Dallas in a game that became more entertaining with each successive quarter. Dak Prescott was the contest’s MVP, tallying three total touchdowns and recording a 141.7 passer rating as his Cowboys rallied from a sluggish start, but Fitzgerald was its brightest star.
The veteran receiver grabbed 13 of 15 targets, amassing 149 yards and a touchdown, and on a night in which Arizona struggled to run the ball without injured back David Johnson and protect Carson Palmer from a penetrating defensive front, he served as both the offense’s most reliable security valve and its greatest downfield threat. Throwing to Fitzgerald, Palmer’s passer rating was a robust 130.3. To all other targets, that mark was 74.8, and every non-Fitzgerald wide receiver combined for four catches.
Plus, Fitzgerald made this catch in the fourth quarter, providing the kind of highlight that’s so ridiculous it requires multiple viewings to figure out just quite what happened. It’s not so strange that a receiver would corral a pass with his forearm; it is strange that a receiver would corral a pass with only his forearm, which at the moment of the catch is lying flat on the turf.
More broadly, Fitzgerald’s night moved beyond the spectacular single play to the historic career achievement. Although he has acted as one of the sport’s premier receivers during its most pass-happy era, Fitzgerald’s rise is still somewhat of a surprise, given that he experienced a recent multiyear swoon. He failed to reach 1,000 yards or 100 catches in any season from 2012-2014; in the first of that three-year period, with John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer throwing him passes, he caught less than 50 percent of his targets for the only time in his career.
But after escaping Skelton’s wilderness, even an inconsistent Palmer looks like manna. Now a slot target rather than a downfield burner, Fitzgerald is back to his prolific ways. In each of the last two years, he exceeded the round numbers of 1,000 yards and 100 catches; after the 2015 season, he provided another set of remarkable playoff highlights, and last year he led the league with 107 grabs. His production hasn’t diminished in 2017: After Monday’s game, he’s on pace for 117 catches and 1,301 yards—right in line with, if not better than, his recent output.
That consistency means that, much like a safety’s back on a jump ball, Fitzgerald is climbing all-time leaderboards. On Monday, he passed Marvin Harrison for eighth place on the NFL’s career receiving yards leaderboard, and seventh through third place are all within 1,000 yards. Even an average season would propel the Cardinal great to third place, behind only Jerry Rice (still more than 8,000 yards away) and Terrell Owens (fewer than 1,500), before he turns 35.
With David Johnson out, with the once-innovative defense struggling to jell, and with Palmer seeming to beg for multiple interceptions every game, the Cardinals outside Fitzgerald aren’t the most watchable bunch. The 1-2 team’s only win thus far came in a 16-13 overtime anti-classic against the similarly uninspired Colts. But at least Arizona, as always, has Fitzgerald. He’s making circus catches. He’s not slowing down. He’s unlikely to feature in the 2017 postseason, but for the sake of Cardinals fans’ joy and his own historical standing, he still has ample reason to star for the next 13 games.