Fitzgerald, James fill huge roles in Cards' rise

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TEMPE -- One's career is on the rise, the other on the wane.

Larry Fitzgerald and Edgerrin James both fill crucial roles in the Arizona Cardinals' plans to beat Philadelphia on Sunday and advance, believe it or not, to the Super Bowl.

Fitzgerald's spectacular catches are the poster plays for this upstart team. James' return to the lineup and the corresponding resuscitation of Arizona's dormant running game are big reasons for the Cardinals' improbable postseason success.

Fitzgerald's incredible skills are new to much of the nation, but not to the Cardinals. Coach Ken Whisenhunt calls him the best receiver in the NFL.

"In my eyes he's been there for a while now," Whisenhunt said after the team's Thursday practice. "We see him do things on the practice field every day. Those catches that he's been making the last few weeks, we've seen those a number of times."

In the first two playoff games of his career - victories over Atlanta and Carolina - Fitzgerald has 14 receptions for 267 yards and two touchdowns.

Nearly identical catches ignited Arizona's offense early in both games with Kurt Warner throwing long and the 6-foot-3 Fitzgerald outjumping two defenders to come down with the ball.

"I think a true test of a player is how he responds in big games," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said, "and Larry's two biggest games of his career - high school, college and now the NFL - have been the last two weeks."

Fitzgerald is the antithesis of the stereotypical big-mouth receivers of the NFL. The 25-year-old receiver never celebrates touchdowns, just flips the ball to the official, and he probably would be happy if he never had to give a media interview the rest of his life.

But he talked Thursday - insightfully.

"This is part of the obligation," he joked. "I don't want to get fined anymore, so I'm going to do what I'm told."

Fitzgerald grew up in the NFL, serving as ballboy for coach Dennis Green's Minnesota Vikings before going on to an outstanding, if brief, college career at Pittsburgh. Green was the Arizona coach when the Cardinals made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft. That's awfully high for a receiver, but Fitzgerald has proved it to be a wise choice.

"He's going to be one of the greatest to ever play," James said.

This year, Fitzgerald led the NFC in receptions (96) and became the youngest player to reach 400 career catches. And only teammate Anquan Boldin reached that mark faster, doing it in 67 games to Fitzgerald's 71. Yet Fitzgerald downplays his status and says he has a lot to learn, but he will not take a big picture look at his career and his future. At least not now.

"I think Coach Haley talked about this a couple of weeks ago - now is not the time to reflect," he said. "When we're sitting around in March or when you're retired and my son is older and he's playing in high school and saying, 'Dad, I'm making better catches than you.' That"s when I'm going to show him the tape."

Fitzgerald signed a four-year, $40 million contract - $30 million guaranteed - after last season. His future in Arizona is more than secure.

James, though, could be playing his last game for the Cardinals on Sunday. The 30-year-old running back, in his 10th NFL season, said two weeks ago he believes he and the team will part by mutual agreement.

The man who ranks 11th on the NFL's career rushing list was benched halfway through the season in favor of rookie Tim Hightower. But it didn't do much to help Arizona's woeful ground game. The Cardinals finished last in the league in rushing.

Whisenhunt brought James back in the regular-season finale against Seattle.

James rushed for 100 yards that day and has been solid, if not spectacular since. Any semblance of a running game helps clear the way for Warner and the potent Arizona passing game.

Whisenhunt said switching to Hightower gave the team the best chance to win. He said that the team would need James somewhere down the road. James wasn't sure that was true.

"I never knew," he said. "I just sat there and waited. I didn't know when I was getting in the game. I just made sure I went out and continued to practice and do what I've always done and not let whatever is going on take you from the type of player or person you are."

James stayed quiet, but his agent didn't. Drew Rosenhaus called general manager Rod Graves to ask that James be released. Graves said no, that such a move made no sense for the team.

Whisenhunt said he and James maintained a professional relationship, no matter what the agent was saying.

"I don't know if there was ever any real tension between Edgerrin and me," Whisenhunt said. "I know a lot of times he wasn't happy because he wasn't playing, and that's what you want. You want players like that. He has been respectful. ... I have a great deal of respect for him and what he has done for our team, especially in the latter part after going through a hard time."

James never made it to the Super Bowl despite all his success with Indianapolis. He does have a Super Bowl ring from owner Robert Irsay when the Colts won it all a year after James left and signed a free agent contract with Arizona.

James was asked if he ever pinched himself to see if it was true that he and the long downtrodden Cardinals were a win away from the Super Bowl.

No, he said, that came earlier in the season.

"I pinched myself on the sideline," he said. "I couldn't believe I was on the bench."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)