FOXBOROUGH — The question was asked during a conference call, and for a moment there was silence on the other end.
What does it mean, Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald was asked, that a coach like Bill Belichick said you might go down as the best wide receiver ever?
“That’s what he said?” Fitzgerald finally responded. You can imagine his eyes widening from 2,300 miles away.
Yes, that’s what he said. And though Fitzgerald plays in the desert for a team that doesn’t generate much national interest save for its underdog run to the Super Bowl four years ago, with a revolving door of quarterbacks in recent years, he’s continued to produce at an exceedingly high level.
For the record, here’s what Belichick said: “He does everything well. He’s a great, great receiver; will go down as one of the all-time greats and might end up being the best one ever, I don’t know.
“He has size, quickness, ability to separate and get open, exceptional hands. He’s good short, deep, with the ball in his hands after the catch; strong, very smart, sets up his routes well. They move him around, they put him in a lot of different spots; it’s hard to even find him. You have no idea where he’s going to line up from play to play.
“He has a very big route tree; he runs all the routes with double moves off of them and complementary moves so one route sets up another. It’s very hard to defend him. very hard to find him and then it’s very hard to defend him. Again, he’s just as dangerous going down the field as he is taking a shorter pass and running with it, so that’s not really the answer either — just letting him catch it in front of you and not give up any big plays because he can make plays there, too. Try to keep the ball out of his hands, but that’s not easy.”
After being assured that Belichick had indeed said he might be the best ever, Fitzgerald gathered himself.
“It’s an honor that he even knows my name, to be honest with you,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s arguably the best coach to ever do it. You look at his record and what he’s been able to accomplish over his career, he’s an unbelievable football coach. I have a long way to go, a lot to improve on, a lot to work on, and obviously I’m envious of him and all the hardware he has and his team has, so we have a lot to improve on.”
In eight-plus seasons since being chosen third overall out of Pittsburgh, Fitzgerald has worked with nine starting quarterbacks, and the Cardinals have enjoyed just two winning seasons (2008 and ’09).
But game after game, year after year, Fitzgerald is there. He’s played in 125 of 129 regular-season games, and hasn’t missed one since 2007.
In six seasons, he has recorded 80-plus catches, and topped 1,000 yards in each of those. He’s gone over 1,400 yards four times.
With three catches this Sunday against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, he will reach 700 two weeks after his 29th birthday, the youngest ever to do so by more than a year.
At his current rate of production, Fitzgerald could retire at 35 with more than 1,200 receptions. Jerry Rice played until he was 42 and had 1,549.
“What’s the best word to describe the toughest challenge?” Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty responded Wednesday when asked how tough Fitzgerald is to cover. “This is for a few years one of the top receivers, if not the top receiver, in the NFL, so I mean for us in the secondary it will be an incredible challenge this week to go out there and compete against him. But I think the biggest word for us is compete.
“Without a doubt he’s going to make some plays but we’ve got to try to go out there and challenge him each play, because I think we know what he’s capable of. But it’s just going out there and trying to contain him and be able to compete with him.”
If the past is any indication, Belichick will do his darnedest to cook up a game plan aimed at taking away Fitzgerald, clearly the Cardinals’ best offensive weapon. Whether the Patriots will be successful is another matter.
“He catches everything,” McCourty said. “You see a lot of throws they throw to him, he’s double-covered, sometimes three guys around him, but somehow he still catches the ball, so when you’ve got a guy like that . . . he just catches everything.”
Safety Steve Gregory echoed McCourty.
“It’ll be tough. He’s just a great all-around receiver,” Gregory said. “He’s been doing it at a high level for years now and you definitely have to know where that guy is on the field, because he can hurt you at any moment.
“He’s made his name off of being covered by going up and catching the ball over other guys. He’s that type of receiver, regardless of whether a guy is in position or not. He has a way to change and move his body in the air to get the ball. We have to be ready for that.”
In a way that likely underscores just how good he is, when he’s asked about Belichick’s praise, Fitzgerald declared he’s far from a finished product, as is his team.
“I have a long way to go,” he said. “We’ve only played one game this year. We were in the same position (1-0) last year and we dropped the next six. That’s something that we’ve talked about all this week; attention to detail is something that we’re really been stressing. The New England Patriots are a team that if you make a mistake against them, they will make you pay for it.”
Fitzgerald said the memory of a 47-7 loss to the Patriots in 2008 the last time they visited Foxborough lingers, despite Arizona going to the Super Bowl weeks later.
The Cardinals’ only score that day was a 78-yard catch and run by Fitzgerald, which remains the longest touchdown of his career.
As the receiver hasn’t forgotten the embarrassment and disappointment of that day, as he called it, it’s likely Belichick hasn’t forgotten that score — possibly the only negative in an otherwise dominant day.