In 2008, Larry Fitzgerald had a fantastic regular season capped off by a historically great postseason; in the Super Bowl, he set the record for receiving yards in a season, including playoff games, with 1,977 yards. Of course, 2008 was decades ago in today’s era of what have you done for me lately. The table below shows Fitzgerald’s stats over the past four seasons. The final two columns show the total number of receiving yards generated by all Cardinals players and Fitzgerald’s share of that number.
ARI Rec Yds
2009 was the last season of the Kurt Warner/Anquan Boldin Cardinals. The 97 receptions and 13 touchdowns look great, although hitting those marks and not gaining 1,100 receiving yards is very unusual. Fitzgerald was only responsible for 26% of the Cardinals receiving yards that season, although one could give him a pass since he was competing with another star receiver for targets.In 2010, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, and Richard Bartel were the Cardinals quarterbacks: as a group, they averaged 5.8 yards per attempt on 561 passes. Arizona’s passing attack was bad, but without Boldin, Fitzgerald gained 34.8% of the team’s receiving yards. Steve Breaston chipped in with 718 receiving yards yards while a 22-year-old Andre Roberts was third with 307 yards. In other words, Fitzgerald performed pretty much how you would expect a superstar receiver to perform on a team with a bad quarterback and a mediocre supporting cast: his raw numbers were still very good (but not great) because he ate such a huge chunk of the pie. After the 2010 season, I even wondered if he could break any of Jerry Rice’s records (spoiler: he can’t).
In 2011, Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Bartel combined for 3,954 yards on 550 passes, a 7.2 yards per attempt average (Kolb was at 7.7 Y/A). That qualifies as a pretty respectable passing game and Fitzgerald appeared to have a monster year, gaining 35.7% of the Cardinals’ receiving yards (Early Doucet was second with 689 yards and Roberts was third with 586 yards). It’s always hard splicing out cause and effect, but my takeaway is that with a more competent passing game, Fitzgerald continued to get the lion’s share of the team’s production but unlike in 2010, this led to great and not just good numbers.
But last year, not only did the Cardinals passing game decline, but Fitzgerald’s share of the pie dropped sharply, too. On 608 passes, Skelton, Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer averaged 5.6 yards per attempt. For the first time in the post-Boldin era, another receiver put a dent in Fitzgerald’s production, as Andre Roberts picked up 759 receiving yards despite missing a game (he actually averaged slightly more receiving yards per game than Fitzgerald). When Boldin ate into Fitzgerald’s production, the pie was a lot bigger — in part because of Boldin — but that wasn’t the case with Roberts.
Fitzgerald’s four-year run is pretty fascinating – it’s almost like a real life science experiment on how wide receiver production varies due to supporting cast. In 2009, he played with another great receiver so his percentage of the pie wasn’t high, but he also played with a great quarterback, so he produced strong numbers. In 2010, the quarterback and the receiver were gone, which seemed to cancel each other out (more receiving yards, fewer touchdowns, although both of those numbers were due to move in that direction anyway). In 2011, the quarterback play improved, so he ended up eating the same percentage of a larger pie. Then last year, the play fell through the floor… but unlike in 2010, he wound up losing a big percentage of his value.
So what’s the explanation? I don’t think it’s as simple as “his quarterbacks stunk.” Or even if that is the answer, that doesn’t make for a very good post. Let’s investigate his last four seasons under a different microscope. This next table shows the number of Cardinals pass attempts, Fitzgerald’s number of targets, catches, and catch rate, and his yards per reception, his Air Yards per reception, and his average gain after the catch, all courtesy of NFLGSIS.
There are a couple of things that really stand out when you look at the table: Fitzgerald’s target percentage has continued to drop, while his catch rate fell through the floor last year. But first, let’s look at the 2011 row.
Two years ago, Fitzgerald averaged a ridiculous 17.6 yards per catch. That was highly unsustainable and out of character for him. And while he was catching passes deeper downfield (in Mike Clay parlance, his aDOT rose a bit), the real reason for his increase in yards per catch was due to the yards he gained after catching the ball. Fitzgerald had 14 catches of 30+ yards in 2011 compared to seven such passes in 2009, 2010, and 2012 combined. Now if I was a superstar writer, I’d fire up NFL Game Rewind and watch those 14 plays; maybe someone in the comments will do that, but I’m content to say those were outliers unlikely to repeat themselves. I’ll just note that had his 80 catches come on a more Fitzgerald-like 12.5 yards per reception, that would have given him an even 1,000 yards.
One narrative for Fitzgerald’s career is that he was a superstar receiver through 2008, had a monster season in receptions/touchdowns in 2009, a down year in 2010 because of bad quarterback play, a bounceback, 1400-yard season in 2011, and then a miserable year last season because of terrible quarterback play.
Here’s another narrative. Fitzgerald caught 100 passes in 2006, 96 and 97 in 2008/2009, and then has dropped to 90, 80, and finally 71 over the last three years. He was fortunate to string together a bunch of big plays in 2011, a trait he hasn’t otherwise possessed, otherwise his yardage totals would have seen a similar decline.
Fitzgerald had a sparkling 63% catch rate with Warner and Boldin in 2009, but dropped to 52% with bad quarterback play in 2010. Then, despite much better quarterback play, his catch rate didn’t improve in 2011, and then his catch rate fell even farther last year. His percentage of team targets has declined in each of the last two years, too. And Andre Roberts played the role of Ronald Curry in 2012, gaining more yards per game than Fitzgerald. And it’s not like the weak offensive line is to blame for that one: Roberts’ average reception came one yard farther down the field (8.41) than Fitzgerald’s: it’s not as if Roberts was running shorter routes. In fact, the fact that Fitzgerald’s aDOT was so low is a sign that the Cardinals were doing everything they could to get him the ball, and it just wasn’t working.
It’s easy and noncontroversial to give Fitzgerald a pass for last season. And in my gut, I certainly expect to see Fitzgerald bounce back this year; Carson Palmer should provide a nice upgrade, and the offensive line should be better with the return of Levi Brown and the drafting of Jonathan Cooper. New head coach Bruce Arians has talked about moving Fitzgerald around the field to get him into more favorable positions, another good sign that 2013 should be a bounce-back year.
But there’s another Arians receiver to think about. As bad as the Cardinals passing game, think back to the 2011 Colts. In lieu of Peyton Manning, Indianapolis had a quarterback chimera composed of Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky, and Curtis Painter. The 2011 Colts actually averaged more yards per attempt, but since the 2012 Cardinals passed 74 more times, Arizona gained more passing yards. And instead of competing with Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd, Reggie Wayne had to compete with Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Jacob Tamme. Despite all that, Wayne still gained 960 receiving yards, giving him 29.8% of the team’s receiving yards despite the more talented supporting cast.
The best-case scenario for Cardinals fans is that this turns into another Steve Smith situation. In 2010, Smith looked washed up playing for a Carolina team that was as horrible at passing as the 2012 Cardinals. Then, in 2011, he had a monster season after the team drafted Cam Newton. But that’s the optimistic view. I can’t figure out where I stand on Fitzgerald’s future prospects, but I don’t think it’s as simple as “he had a bad quarterback, he’ll be fine with Carson Palmer.” With Roberts and Michael Floyd around, I would be hesitant to project more than 28% of the Cardinals receiving yards this season. Based on fantasy drafts so far, most people think he’ll be back to 30-35% of the Cardinals receiving pie or that Bruce Arians is about to perform another miracle.