The announcement Sunday was one those close to the organization saw coming and fans around the Valley dreaded.
Fitzgerald's $18 million cap hit next season is simply too great for the team to shoulder. If Arizona could save $8 million by moving his salary to another team then, well, the business side of the NFL sometimes trumps loyalty. First-year general manager Steve Keim has set out to rebuild the franchise under coach Bruce Arians and, as last offseason showed, large, burdensome contracts will be happily unloaded.
Unless a trade is executed before Tuesday’s deadline, the Cardinals will likely attempt to restructure Fitzgerald's deal to keep him in Arizona. But whether they’ll be able to get him to sit down at the bargaining table will depend on Fitzgerald’s desire to remain in Arizona. His struggles the past two seasons are no secret. Despite being a Pro Bowler seven times, including the past six seasons, Fitzgerald hasn’t had a talented quarterback to throw to him since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season. In fact, besides Warner, he hasn’t had a talented, reliable quarterback. Since he was drafted in 2004, Fitzgerald has caught passes from 15 different quarterbacks, but he’s still been able to author a Hall of Fame career before turning 30 last August.
Whether he wants to return to the Cardinals may be the biggest question. At what point does the frustration of not having a quarterback break a receiver? Or at least give him the desire to play elsewhere?
If he wants to leave, Fitzgerald wouldn't ever say it publicly. He was voted the most-liked player in the NFL by Forbes for a reason. He’s very conscious of what he says around the media, meticulously picking his words for specific questions.
He’ll never come out and say he’s frustrated, but the quarterback situation the past two seasons have to be taking a toll.
Fitzgerald's streak of five straight years with more than 1,000 yards receiving came to an end last season as the Cardinals trotted out four different starting quarterbacks. This season he has 422 yards and four touchdowns through seven games -- with one 100-yard day -- catching passes from Carson Palmer, a quarterback who may be on his last legs.
Whether the Cardinals trade Fitzgerald will largely determine on his market value. Is he worth another big name in return? Do the Cardinals even want a star and the contract that comes with him? If Keim is trying to rebuild this team from the bottom up, will Arizona be able to get comparable draft picks in return?
It’s a large salary cap hit for any team to take, but somebody will do it if they feel they’re a piece away from a Lombardi Trophy.
But in an age when players collect jerseys like kids used to collect baseball cards, Fitzgerald’s No. 11 has become synonymous with Arizona. He isn’t just any old Cardinal. As the team’s weekly press release puts it, Fitzgerald is “The Franchise.”
He’s the face of the Cardinals and he’s brought this team a lot of good will during his 10 seasons here, even as the franchise went through some rocky times. For a small-market team, to have their star be a national name says something.
But is it enough to keep him in Arizona for the rest of his career?
Only Fitzgerald can answer that.