TEMPE, Ariz. – Larry Fitzgerald is back in practice and, even in a knee brace, will provide new quarterback Derek Anderson a welcome big-play target when the Arizona Cardinals open the season Sunday in St. Louis.
Fitzgerald has started all 92 games, plus each of Arizona's eight postseason contests, since he came into the NFL, and he and his coach have every intention of keeping that streak intact.
"He was moving along just fine," coach Ken Whisenhunt said after Wednesday's practice, Fitzgerald's second of the week. "He is progressing very well. I know he's ready to play because it's been tough for him to watch the last two weeks."
Fitzgerald sat out the final three preseason games after spraining his right knee on a nasty hit from Houston's Eugene Wilson in Arizona's preseason opener Aug. 14. The injury occurred as Fitzgerald caught a pass over the middle from Matt Leinart. Fitzgerald stayed in for another series and reciprocated a big hit on Wilson, then left the game.
Fitzgerald said that the coaching staff insisted on a cautious approach to his injury.
"I wanted to go earlier," he said, "but they kept holding me out and I think that was good. Injured, you can be worst enemy sometimes. "
Fitzgerald enters his seventh NFL season acknowledged as among the top receivers in the game. Now, though, he must adjust to the absence of fellow standout receiver Anquan Boldin and, most significantly, quarterback Kurt Warner. Boldin was traded to Baltimore and Warner retired.
No matter, Fitzgerald said.
"I've got to continue to raise my level of play," he said. "No matter what's going on around me, I have to go out there and do my job and win and be somebody that my teammates can count on to make plays for them, week in and week out. That's what I pride myself on."
Fitzgerald was elected one of the offense's captains for the second year in a row.
"I'm honored to have that," he said. "I just want to make sure I'm carrying the flag positively every single week and doing the things a captain should do."
Fitzgerald seems comfortable in the leadership role in what he has said could be the mid-point of his career. Once shy of the press, he is exceedingly accommodating these days. Back from his annual overseas summer trip, this one to Asia, he gave 2-year-old son Devin rides on his Segway after training camp workouts. The two also were fixtures courtside at Phoenix Suns games.
Maturation, he said, "is just something that happens" with time.
He emphatically denied rumors that he had urged the coaches to go with Anderson over Leinart, who was released by the team Saturday and has signed with Houston.
"I want to clear the air on that one," Fitzgerald said. "I had nothing to do with that. Somebody told me I was pulling for Derek. I've never taken a snap with Derek, so how can I vouch for a man that I haven't even played with. ... I think it's unfair to point (to) me as somebody that would do that. I just want to win. I believe in coach Whisenhunt and what he's done here over the years.
"Your job is not to talk in the media or have an opinion. It's your job to go out there and produce and do what you're asked to do."
Fitzgerald must make an adjustment from Warner, one of the best touch passers in NFL history, to the rocket arm of Anderson.
"We play receiver," he said. "If it comes hard, we've got to catch it. If it comes soft, we've got to catch it. If it's high, we've got to catch it. If it's low, we've got to catch it. It's part of our job description. As long the ball's coming my way, you're never going to hear me complain."
The ball has come his way more than often, with spectacular results, since he was drafted No. 3 overall as a 19-year-old out of the University of Pittsburgh.
In week 15 of last season, he became the youngest player in NFL history — at 26 years, 111 days — to reach 7,000 yards receiving. Since 2005, he has more receptions (465) and yards receiving (6,287) than anyone else in the league. In the playoffs two years ago, he shattered most receiving records.
Last year, despite new defensive schemes designed to take away his downfield plays, he topped 1,000 yards receiving for the third consecutive year and the fourth time in his six NFL seasons. His 13 touchdown catches were a career best and tied for the most in the league.
Still, it's not enough for a player who seems driven to be acknowledged as one of the best.
"Every day I step out on the practice field, I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can to make sure I'm doing the best and I'm following the lead of the best," he said, "guys like Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter, Michael Irvin, Tim Brown. They set the blueprint on what it was to be a great receiver. All I have to do is try to follow it the best way I can."