The Cardinals are one of the oldest franchises in the NFL and they have called Arizona home since 1988 after moving to Phoenix from St. Louis. The team has similar longevity to some of the most well known franchises in the game. Teams like the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, and New York Giants, who were all part of the league by the late 1920’s. There is one major difference between the Cardinals and these other teams besides the lack of a Super Bowl victory. Iconic franchise players.
When you think of the three teams mentioned above what or should I say who comes to mind? With the Bears you have Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, and Brian Urlacher to name a few. The Packers have Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Reggie White, and now Aaron Rodgers. The New York football Giants have Frank Gifford, Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Michael Strahan, and now Eli Manning. Do you see a pattern? Who do you think of when you think of the Arizona Cardinals?
If you are a long time fan of the team you may remember Jim Hart or Ottis Anderson, but if you asked the casual football fan, they would probably give you the deer in the headlights. In more recent history, say the past thirty years, if someone were to give me ten seconds to name the three most recognizable Cardinals players during that time, I would answer Pat Tillman, Kurt Warner, and Larry Fitzgerald. Tillman obviously comes to mind for reasons reaching far beyond the football field. He will always go down as one of the greatest men to ever don the Cardinals uniform. It’s a testament to the impact he had on this franchise, taking them to their only Super Bowl appearance, that Warner is on that list after playing only five seasons in Arizona. Then there is Larry Fitzgerald.
Nearly every franchise has it’s own virtual Mount Rushmore of iconic players that are easily associated with that team. The Cardinals, who are nearing their 100th anniversary, are finally ready to break out the chisel and add their first player deserving of that honor. When you think of the Arizona Cardinals, there is only one player that will be on the tip of the tongue of any football fan and that is Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has finally provided the Cardinals with something they sorely need, an icon to celebrate. A player who will one day be immortalized in bronze in the halls of Canton and possibly in front of University of Phoenix stadium. Fitzgerald has, and always will be a Cardinal. Sadly, like so many before him, his final years may not be as one.
The NFL is a tough business, the last word being key. Fitzgerald restructured his contract this season allowing the team the flexibility they need to be able to keep him on the roster and still attempt to build a winner around him; for him. That’s right, for him. The Cardinals will rally around him the way the Broncos rallied around Elway in 1997. Fitzgerald has reached that kind of status with not only the Cardinals faithful fan base, but within the organization.
They didn’t give him that massive contract for nothing. That contract may not have looked great for the accountants or the football pundits that knew it wouldn’t be a great deal when the receiver began his golden years, but it was a symbol. It was a symbol that the Arizona Cardinals were finally going to be a franchise that rewarded both loyalty and excellence. Too many quality free agents had walked out that door for the Cardinals to ever be taken seriously. That is, until Fitzgerald got paid. His deal sent a message to players on their roster and potential free agents alike. It was also a symbol to Fitz. He was being compensated not just for his Hall of Fame level excellence on the field, but for his commendable preparation and leadership off it. Now the question is, can he finish his career with the only NFL franchise he has ever known?
Most of us prefer to ignore the memories of Brett Favre in a Vikings or Jets uniform. We try to forget that Joe Montana continued his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Jerry Rice as a Raider; a Bronco? Blasphemy. This is a problem in other sports too. Steve Nash in Lakers purple and gold anyone? I truly believe that these leagues need to create some kind of salary cap exemption for teams with franchise players in the twilight of their careers. Some way to allow teams to still pay their long time top players a respectable salary while not handcuffing their ability to build a winner. Maybe someday that will happen, but it will not be in time for Fitzgerald. He is going to have to make a decision. Does he want to swallow some pride in order to finish his career with one team?
Fitzgerald’s cap number for next season will be roughly $23.5 million. That is too much for any one player who is not a lock to be a future Hall of Fame quarterback. That is just the reality of the NFL. I don’t think the best of accountants will be able to restructure that number in a way that still gets him his money and doesn’t bury the Cardinals. Next year, if he wants to remain a Cardinal, he will have to actually take a pay cut. Nobody wants to take a pay cut. For some players this is too much of an insult to consider. Their pride can simply not allow them to consider the option, regardless if there is more money on the open market or not. I believe Larry Fitzgerald is smarter than that. I also don’t think the Cardinals are going to lowball him the way the Bears did with Urlacher. Urlacher would have come back for a respectable amount, but the Bears showed him the door with a measly offer for a guy with the kind of career he had. Urlacher chose to retire rather than put on another uniform. Fitzgerald is too young for that.
I sincerely hope that Fitzgerald and the Cardinals can find a way to make the numbers work. The Cardinals can still pay Fitz more than he would likely get on the open market at his age. He is more valuable to them than any other team. If Fitzgerald can face the business reality of the NFL and the Cardinals do everything in their power to be fair to their franchise player, I don’t see why they can’t once again lead by example.
Who knows, maybe one day soon, Bill or Michael Bidwell can hold up the Lombardi trophy and yell out, “This one’s for Larry!”