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The revival of Larry Fitzgerald

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Larry Fitzgerald is seated in the kitchen nook of his one-story, Mediterranean-themed home. The lights are dim and the house is fairly quiet, save for NBC's broadcast of the Broncos-Lions game.

He's less than two hours removed from the Cardinals' 47-7 romp over the 49ers, and his 32-year-old body is feeling the fatigue and soreness of a nine-catch, 134-yard, two-touchdown performance. But as he arches against a padded backrest, stretching his arms to the side, he's also feeling a sense of personal satisfaction.

"In every phase of your career as a professional athlete, people are going to say things," he says. "When I got drafted, they said, 'Oh, he's only a 4.5 [seconds] guy. Is he going to be able to play in the fast-paced NFL?' When I showed I could play at this level, they said, 'How long do you think he's going to be able to sustain it?' And when they gave me a new contract, people said, 'Is he going to be able to continue to improve, or is he going to rest on his laurels?' Now they're saying, 'Is he over the hill? Can he still play?' "

The doubts were understandable, considering he was coming off consecutive down seasons. His 63 receptions and 784 yards last season were his lowest totals since his rookie year in 2004, and his two touchdowns were half of his previous career low.

However, three games into this season, the 12-year veteran leads all receivers in touchdowns (five), is tied for second in first downs (19) and ranks fifth in yards (333) and eighth in catches (23). His five scores in the past two weeks are also a career high for back-to-back games.

"He looks like the Larry of old," a scout for an NFC West team said. "Although the speed is what it is at this point, his legs look more fresh than they did last season. He looks rejuvenated and looks like he wants to carry the team on his back. In 2014, he looked like his legs were done. He couldn't run and couldn't separate laterally. Everything about him was off. He dropped balls that have been routine for him in the past. Usually he was pretty diligent in the way he played, but for whatever reason he looked like he had lost his passion."

Fitzgerald let out a long sigh and lowers his head when asked about that last comment. He seems ready to lead you down a figurative hallway to a room where he stores his most painful memories. But instead of turning the knob and allowing you inside, he locks the door and returns to a place of comfort, keeping his feelings to himself. The closest he comes to letting you in is admitting that he had been uncertain about returning to Arizona in 2015.

"There was doubt, just the way things had gone the last two years," he says softly. "I know this is a young man's game. I'd have been naive to believe that it wasn't a possibility I'd be someplace else."

It wasn't just his age -- it was also his contract. He was scheduled to count $23.6 million against the salary cap in 2015, an insanely high number for a position other than quarterback. There also was the fall-off in production. When club president Michael Bidwill invited him to his home for dinner in early February, Fitzgerald knew it wasn't to discuss the weather.

"Me and Mr. B have always had a great relationship. He's always been honest with me, and I've always been honest with him," Fitzgerald says. "He said, 'Fitz, what are your concerns? Just be open with me.' I was completely transparent with him. ... I told him, you guys drafted me here, I've spent my whole career here, I want to end my career here. There was a handshake and a hug, and it went from there."

A week or so later, Fitzgerald signed what essentially is a two-year, $22 million deal that's fully guaranteed. The restructured pact lowered his cap number to $10.85 million for this season and laid the foundation for him to finish his career where he started.

"He's part of our family. He's the face of the franchise and has been such an important part of what we do," Bidwill says. "We had a two-hour dinner, and maybe five minutes of it was focused on contract. It was obvious to both of us that he needs to retire a Cardinal. This is where his NFL career was born, and this is where he'll retire and we'll put his name in the Ring of Honor some day."

No one is thinking about retirement today, not with the Cardinals at 3-0 and legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They're in this position because of the deft personnel moves of general manager Steve Keim, the exceptional coaching of Bruce Arians and his staff, the sublime play of quarterback Carson Palmer, the stinginess of the ball-hawking defense, and -- remarkably -- the resurgence of a 12th-year wide receiver.

"He's definitely playing at a high level right now," 49ers safety Antoine Bethea said Sunday.

If you believe Fitzgerald, it's as simple as his being surrounded by talented teammates -- "I've got the best quarterback in the business right now. The way he's playing, I'd put him right up there with Aaron Rodgers and anyone else" -- and being in Year 3 of Arians' system.

But the transformation goes much deeper than that. It involved a feeling-out process between a coach who's adamant about doing things his way and an eight-time Pro Bowler with a distinguished résumé who was comfortable doing things his way. It featured two men supremely confident in their abilities, with sizable egos that help make them among the best in their professions.

Fitzgerald also had to adjust to Arians' style. Arians coaches his players hard and is known to be as tough on his stars as he is on the 53rd player on the roster. He didn't just challenge Fitzgerald to learn to play in the slot after spending nearly all of his career on the outside. He demanded it. He also required that Fitzgerald spend significantly more time run-blocking against linebackers and safeties than cornerbacks.

When Fitzgerald's targets on third down dropped -- and Arians publicly said he doesn't design specific plays for specific players -- it appeared the coach was phasing out the fan favorite. But Arians believes strongly that trust must be earned. Beyond that, he said, there was a more basic reason for Fitzgerald's fall-off beyond the the loss of Palmer and backup Drew Stanton to injury.

"Last year he had two MCLs," Arians said, referring to knee injuries. "He kind of kept it to himself and was probably never better than 75 percent. The year before he had two [bad] hamstrings. This is the first time since we've been here together that he's been totally healthy. He's totally bought in and understands what we're trying to do."

The changes were obvious against the 49ers, with Fitzgerald presenting a threat from multiple positions. On the first snap from scrimmage, he lined up wide right and gained 23 yards on a post route. On the next play he motioned into the slot and had a 13-yard gain up the seam. The Cardinals' second possession produced gains of 23 yards from the left slot, 16 from the right slot and 17 more from the left slot. Overall he took 22 snaps from the slot in the opening half and had six catches for 99 yards. He came in motion and delivered strong blocks on ends, linebackers and safeties to help Chris Johnson gain 110 yards on 22 carries.

"Larry is very special -- different, from any superstar I've ever been around," Palmer says. "What he does in the run game is unbelievable. He's the best blocking receiver in the league, but you've got to worry about him in so many other areas. ... He's transformed himself. He spent so much time early in his career one-on-one on the outside, catching a lot of deeper patterns, just stuck on one side of the field. One-on-one matchups were what he just crushed. Now we're asking him to do something different. He's evolved his game. It's something he wasn't [doing] the first 10, 12 years. I don't know another [superstar] guy who has done that."

"It's been an adjustment," Fitzgerald said of his new role. "You're definitely more sore after games. But it also creates more opportunities for me in the passing game. When I come down in motion, you don't know if I'm blocking or if I'm going out for a pass. It's created a lot more easy catches for me. You're closer to the quarterback, so there's less margin for error. I'm also a bigger guy against much smaller guys in the nickel, so the catches are a little easier.

"But at this point it's about winning. When you're younger, you're trying to get your next deal and get to Pro Bowls. It's a lot more me, me, me when you're building your résumé. You want touches and touchdowns. Well, I've got numbers. I've got money. I've got everything beside what we all play for, and that's a championship. We've got a damn good football team, and we haven't even played our best football yet. I'm excited."

Fitzgerald then places a call to a massage therapist. The price of doing the dirty work is the physical toll it takes on his body. There was no complaining, though. His team is 3-0, and rarely had it felt so good to hurt so bad.