By Kurt Falkenhagen
Larry Fitzgerald Might Be the Best Post-Season Receiver Ever. Period.
In the Cardinals’ heart-stopping 26-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, Fitzgerald caught 8 receptions for 176 yards and a touchdown in overtime – the walk-off game-winner, no less. His torrid performance, especially in the overtime period, only added to his growing list of great playoff games, raising the question: could the veteran Arizona receiver be etching out the greatest post-season career at his position in history?
Larry Legend 2.0
So how does Fitzgerald stack up against the greats?
At 53 receptions for 912 yards and 10 touchdowns, Larry’s playoff totals are beyond respectable, but they rest squarely behind the most famous Hall of Fame receivers like Michael Irvin, John Stallworth and the unassailable Jerry Rice.
But, then again, they would – unlike Irvin, Stallworth and Rice, who played for the three greatest dynasties of all time (the early-1990’s Cowboys, the 1970’s Steelers, and the 1980’s and ’90’s 49ers, respectively) – Fitzgerald has spent his entire career languishing with the lowly Cardinals.
While Cleveland seems to have cornered the market lately on losing spectacularly, the Cardinals have been perfecting this art for nearly a half-century longer. As the oldest continuously-run professional football club in the U.S., the Cardinals have endured two relocations, five name-changes, one brief World War-induced merger with the Steelers, and a league-leading 706 losses across their 118 years of existence. And if it wasn’t for the Buccaneers, they’d own the league-worst all-time winning percentage too (though the Bucs can at least cozy up to their 2002 Lombardi trophy at night for comfort).
The Cardinals have been better recently, though – in no small part because of Fitzgerald – and his career record bears that out (186-184, hovering right around .500). But there’s no denying the fact that he was drafted by a historically-bad franchise – in 12 seasons, the Cardinals have only made the playoffs four times for a total of eight games. What’s astonishing, though, is the level of play Fitzgerald has maintained across those eight games.
As part of the Cardinals’ savagely defeated side in the NFC Championship game, Fitzgerald was denied the honour of reached an exclusive club – 1,000 receiving yards in a post-season career. He was left stranded on on 942.
Larry Fitzgerald now has more receiving yards (912) than any player in NFL history through his first eight career postseason games.
— Mike Jurecki (@mikejurecki) January 17, 2016
In the history of the NFL, only 13 players have ever amassed 1,000 yards receiving in the post-season. This exclusive ‘1,000-Yard Club’ boasts a long list of the best wide receivers ever – Reed, Biletnikoff, and Monk (on top of the three mentioned earlier) – but none of those players reached 1,000 yards in less than 12 games. Only Steve Smith Sr. managed to eclipse that mark in fewer games (11), and only by the skin of his teeth (1,001 yards).
Larry needed 88 yards against the Panthers to reach that goal – a number he had failed to reach in just three out of his previous eight playoff appearances – but could must only 30.
Is Larry Better Than Jerry?
Jerry Rice was the best wide receiver ever. Period. Let’s get that out of the way right now. He played until he was 42, and he was relatively productive for 19 seasons. He’s so far ahead of everyone else – in every statistical category – that trying to make a case against Rice using stats is often futile.
The only legitimate debate to be had is if you prefer a more physically dominant player who didn’t have the same longevity (Randy Moss and Terrell Owens come to mind).
The post-season, however, is a different story.
Rice amassed 2,245 yards on 151 receptions for 22 touchdowns – a staggering total – but also a side-effect of playing in29playoff games throughout his career (substantially more than any other player in the 1,000-Yard Club). When averaged across those 29 games, he keeps a (relatively) modest 77.4 yards per game clip.
By contrast, Fitzgerald is sitting at a staggering 104.7 yards per game (the highest among the group) – and one of those games was a pitiful Wild Card loss in 2015 in which third-string QB Ryan Lindley was forced to start due to injuries (Larry had 3 receptions for 31 yards and no touchdowns – his worst playoff output until last weekend’s blowout). The Cardinals set the record for lowest single-game offensive total in playoff history. The Cardinals’ ineptitude aside, at 1.25 TDs per game, Larry had the highest post-season TD-per-game average ever heading into the NFC Championship…more than any wide receiver or running back in history.
Let’s not stop there, though. Even if you cherry-picked from all 29 of Rice’s playoff games to include only his best eight games, you’d be left with a stat-line – 67 receptions for 1,181 yards and 13 touchdowns – that isn’t substantially better than Fitzgerald’s post-season career so far. And amazingly, if you apply this method to the rest of the list, no one else even measures up – a few come close with their cherry-picked best eight games, but again, this is Larry’sfirsteight playoff games.
For years, people have lamented Fitzgerald’s purgatorial existence on the Cardinals, wishing aloud that he would push for a trade to a more competitive team. Larry had different plans in mind, though. Instead of seeking out greener pastures, he stayed, evolved and elevated his game yet again for another run at finally bringing a title back to Arizona. And while conventional wisdom can be a hard thing to change – Jerry Rice’s “G.O.A.T.-status” is not going away anytime soon – if Larry keeps playing at this pace, he’s going to be breathing air that even Rice couldn’t imagine.