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From the Sidelines: Cardinals’ Fitzgerald no longer best-kept secret

So 17 weeks of regular season and three rounds of playoffs have brought us to this point. The vaunted, history-rich Pittsburgh Steelers head into Tampa favored by a touchdown over the feel-good story of the season, the Arizona Cardinals.

The team with probably the least steam headed into the playoffs, Arizona has overcome the shame of a 47-7 Week 16 beatdown in Foxboro to defy the odds and make the trip to Tampa.

All-world wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has hosted his own personal coming-out party during the playoffs, hauling in 419 yards worth of Kurt Warner passes, setting a new NFL playoff record.

His otherworldly dominance, coupled with the resurgence of Edgerrin James’ career, have provided enough support for the ageless Warner’s third Super Bowl run.

After winning the whole shebang in 2000 as the quarterback of “The Greatest Show on Turf,” Warner’s St. Louis Rams fell one year later at the hands of the New England Patriots and a young Tom Brady, who used the victory to catapult him toward househould name status.

This year, it is Warner’s team that enters with a player on the verge of iconic status in the mild-mannered Fitzgerald.

It is likely that fact that makes it so difficult to root against Fitzgerald’s Cardinals.

NFL receivers are generally branded as prima donnas. They talk too much, whine about alleged conspiracies that prevent them from getting the ball, take plays off, legally change their names to “Ocho Cinco,” get in fights with teammates, call out their quarterbacks and offensive coordinators in front of the national media and, on some occasions, decide to stop figuaratively shooting themselves in the foot and start literally shooting themselves in the leg. As a rule, No. 1 wideouts in The League are a high-maintenance, high-priced breed characterized by providing spotty production and consistent grief.

Then, there is a guy like Fitzgerald. If you’re not an avid fan of the NFL or player of fantasy football, you may not have been familiar with LF prior to this playoff run.

He came from a somewhat off-the-radar school, Pittsburgh. While it is indeed a formidable Big East program, Pitt is far from the spotlight shared by national perennial powerhouses like USC, LSU, Ohio State, Texas or Florida.

He plays for the Arizona Cardinals, a team that has scarcely gotten much run in front of East Coast audiences, thanks in part to its annual irrelevancy on the NFL’s landscape.

So, despite totalling 5,975 yards and 46 touchdowns through his first five NFL seasons, he has remained largely off the map until this point.

So, out of the West comes this receiver who says little and articulates well when he does speak to the media. In front of the cameras, he rocks his suits as if he were a potential NBA lottery pick, typically choosing to wear eyeglasses that give a look which further defies the stereotype of his position.

On the field, he dazzles, showing little hesitation in taking his 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound frame over the middle and daring safeties to make the hit. He stretches the field as well as anybody in the league on deep routes, often flashing tremendous poise and leaping ability as he catapults himself above multiple defenders to haul in otherwise impossible passes.

Then, there are the trips to the end zone. Surely, this is where Fitzgerald will engage in some flashy, extravagant touchdown celebration and show his similarity to the contemporaries at his position.

And there again, Fitz amazes, neglecting to show off excessively.

Then, the week of the Super Bowl, comes perhaps Fitzgerald’s most astounding play of the season.

The Cardinals’ front office has been locked in an ongoing contract dispute with the team’s other top-tier wideout, Anquan Boldin, all season. The former second-round pick has excelled during his tenure with Cardinals, racking up 6,496 yards and 40 touchdowns in six NFL seasons. However, his contract is up at the end of the season, and he has proclaimed on more than one occasion that he would not re-up with Arizona. The Cardinals have pointed to the NFL’s stringent salary cap rules as reason for their inability to pay Boldin an amount comparable to what he could get on the open market.

It is a high-pressure situation. What is there for the Cardinals to do?

Enter Fitzgerald. Reports broke this week that Arizona’s go-to guy has stated publicly that he would be willing to restructure his contract in order to allow the Cardinals to free up enough salary cap space to retain the services of his running buddy.

That is certainly not a common practice by NFL players at any position, least of all wideouts.

Not since former San Francisco 49er great Jerry Rice has the NFL seen a receiver with the magnetic draw of Fitzgerald.

But make no mistake. Arizona’s No. 11 is not the second coming of the man heralded by many as “Jesus in Cleats.”

In demeanor and work ethic, Fitzgerald compares with Rice better than any other player since the Mississippi Valley State alum’s 1985 Frisco debut.

He is an inch taller and 25 pounds larger than Rice. He is faster. He is more explosive. He has larger hands and greater leaping ability. His body control is incomparable, and he has an “it factor” reminiscent of the Niner legend.

He may not yet be as crisp of a route runner, but Fitz runs clean patterns and is showing an ever-increasing understanding of the receiver position. Fitzgerald is slightly off Rice’s record paces, with 395 yards and three touchdowns less than Rice had through his first five seasons. However, he also has exactly 80 catches more than Rice. And, the argument could reasonably be made that Fitzgerald has not had the luxury of working with a quarterback the caliber of Joe Montana.

In the first five years of Rice’s career, Montana missed only 19 of the team’s 80 regular-season starts. Conversely, Fitzgerald has lined up wide with Warner under center to start 42 regular-season games while a combination of Josh McCown, Shaun King, John Navarre and Matt Leinart covered the other 38 games. That level of inconsistency at the team’s quarterback spot makes Fitzgerald’s production even more remarkable.

Fitzgerald may not be the next Jerry Rice. But two decades from now, pro scouts may be on the lookout for the next Larry Fitzgerald. All he needs to complete the comparison is a Super Bowl ring.

His first opportunity comes Sunday against the best defense in the NFL. But no matter what happens in that game, don’t expect Larry Fitzgerald to tell you how good he is or how much he’s worth.

That’s just not him.

He’ll run his routes, make his blocks, catch his passes, gain his yards, shake his defenders and unwittingly etch his name among the greats of the game, all while defying the American public not to root for him.

No. Larry Fitzgerald is not the next anybody, but he is the most dynamic, most underrated player in the NFL. At least, that is, until this Sunday.