Kevin Kolb made his debut last night with the Arizona Cardinals, and Larry Fitzgerald immediately made an outstanding catch on a deep throw down the sideline. We don’t know how Kevin Kolb will turn out, but I’m going to walk out on a large limb and say that Kolb will be the second best quarterback from whom Fitzgerald has caught passes. Fitzgerald’s career is interesting because it basically is divided evenly between playing with one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade, and a bunch of sub-replacement level quarterbacks, with no middle ground. He has 54 games played with Warner (plus two others where Warner and Leinart threw an equal number of passes), and 52 games played with the following: Derek Anderson, Matt Leinart, Josh McCown, John Navarre, John Skelton, Max Hall, Shaun King, Tim Rattay, and Ronald, err, Richard Bartel.
That’s not only true of quarterback. It’s true of the receivers opposite Fitzgerald, with one exception. At one end, we have Anquan Boldin, but Boldin had several injuries before leaving for Baltimore, so before last season, there were 17 games where Fitzgerald played opposite someone else. The best of the group was easily Steve Breaston, who just signed with Kansas City this offseason. Breaston was a solid starter who no one would confuse for an elite receiver, but falls comfortably in the 50-75 range in the league, and is above replacement. The rest were third receiver types forced in by injury, from a first round bust like Bryant Johnson to Doucet, McCoy, Roberts, and Williams.
So let’s take a look at how Fitzgerald has done with these various combinations of QB/other starting WR in his career, and with apologies to all the other quarterbacks and receivers besides Warner, Boldin and Breaston, they get lumped into the “other” category:
QB WR G REC YDS TD Warner Boldin 44 6.4 82.9 0.6 Warner Breaston 6 5.8 94.0 1.5 Warner Other 4 9.0 119.8 0.5 Other Boldin 29 4.5 59.0 0.6 Other Breaston 12 6.0 77.7 0.5 Other Other 11 4.5 61.2 0.2
Obviously, with Warner, Fitzgerald’s numbers were much better: 1.6 more catches a game, 23 more yards, and more touchdowns. As a quick aside, we know that Fitzgerald is awesome. I think the perception of just how awesome he is has been blunted by half a career with crap at quarterback. His per 16 game numbers with Warner: 104 receptions, 1390 yards, 12 touchdowns.
The interesting thing, though, is that Boldin’s presence caused Fitzgerald’s numbers to go down, once we account for the quarterback. Obviously, the team is better off with both good receivers to give the quarterback balance, but Fitzgerald picks up the extra opportunities with Boldin out. Fitzgerald was pretty good with Boldin, and in 10 games with Warner but without Boldin (an admittedly small sample), he was other worldly, averaging over 100 yards a game and over a touchdown a game. Basically, spread out over multiple seasons with Boldin’s injury, it would have been one of the best wide receiver seasons ever.
The same thing happened with Boldin and Fitzgerald present, but a crappy quarterback trying to get them the ball. Fitzgerald’s numbers were actually at their lowest in that situation (59.0 yards per game). The same is not true of Breaston. Fitzgerald’s numbers may have been down last year, but they were much better when Breaston was playing opposite. Breaston is good enough to keep defenses honest, but not so good to demand extra targets at Fitzgerald’s expense.
So what do we make of this year? Kolb doesn’t have to be Warner. I happen to think he will fall somewhere on the Jon Kitna to Stan Humphries to Matt Hasselbeck spectrum when we look back in several years. I think Fitzgerald’s numbers will be in between the other quarterbacks and Warner. He also no longer has Boldin on the opposite side, nor Breaston. What he does have, for the first time in his career, is a decent receiving tight end option instead in Todd Heap when he can stay healthy. There are also rumors that the Cardinals could trade for Lee Evans at receiver. At this stage in his career, Evans would not demand the targets of Boldin in his prime, but has a game that would complement Fitzgerald by being just enough of a deep threat to draw attention.
Add it all together, Fitzgerald + Kolb – Breaston (and minus Boldin a year earlier) + Heap (and maybe Evans) and I think people will be reminded just how awesome Larry Fitzgerald is this year.
[photo via Getty]