TEMPE, Ariz. – Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass in all but one of his 129 games over his nine-year NFL career, the lone blemish coming in 2004 on a miserable afternoon in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The game was forgettable much like Tim Euhus, who had two catches for 21 yards and a touchdown for the Bills in a 38-14 victory.
Fitzgerald's statistical line, 0-0-0, looked more suitable for Rob Ray and was impossible to dress up. Most receivers would have dismissed the performance as one bad game during their rookie season and pushed it through a shredder. For Fitzgerald, the seventh game of his career became his personal trainer and motivational speaker.
The mere scent of that game last week was enough to arouse emotions in Fitzgerald that he had kept buried just beneath the surface. All these years later, the triple goose eggs still traumatize him like a gang of hoodlums who jumped him and stole his bicycle. And that's why he interrupted the prelude to a question.
“Oh, no, don't remind me,'' Fitzgerald pleaded by telephone. “Please don't remind me. I already know. It was the worst day professionally in my career up there in Ralph Wilson Stadium. We don't even have to talk about it, so don't even ask me. We know already what you're going to ask me.''
“You know when you come home and you know you're in trouble with your dad?'' he said. “You already know what you did wrong. He knows what you did wrong. And you say, 'Dad, look, I know I messed up. I apologize. I'm going to apologize before you even say anything.' ”
Larry, it was eight years ago.
“And it still eats at me,'' he said. “It still bothers the heck out of me. I'm a professional. I take a lot of pride in what I do. You take pride in writing a good column, right? I've worked nine years tirelessly to make sure that doesn't happen again.''
Fitzgerald definitely knows his share about press coverage. His love for statistics was passed down from his father, Larry Sr., a sportswriter for the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder. He became the first to cover his son in a Super Bowl. In his rookie year, Larry Jr. memorized every offensive record in the Cardinals' media guide.
Now, at age 29, he owns most of them for receivers.
Buffalo's dilemma is covering Fitzgerald, who will be the best “Fitz'' on the field today. It would not be a total shock if Fitzgerald finished with more receiving yards than Ryan Fitzpatrick had passing yards. The Bills (2-3) have been mired in a full-blown crisis, and Fitzgerald is the last player they need across the line of scrimmage.
If they don't control the 6-foot-3, 218-pound receiver, particularly after the catch, they can forget about beating the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Arizona already knocked off New England and Philadelphia en route to a 4-1 record, a mark some believe is a myth. Fitzgerald, however, is for real.
“He's an elite player, definitely one of the best wideouts in the game,'' Bills safety George Wilson said. “He's strong. He runs great routes, and he has soft hands. When I call him one of the best, let me rephrase. He's one of the elite, the creme de la creme of wide receivers we have in this league. When you mention wide receivers in any conversation, Larry Fitzgerald's name will be one of the first to come up.''
Fitzgerald, who has 25 catches for 250 yard and two TDs in his last three games, is 48 yards receiving shy of 10,000 in his career. The six-time Pro Bowl pick, who signed an eight-year contract worth $120 million before last season, could reach the milestone before halftime if the Bills continue their march toward the abyss.
Like many great ones, he's relentless and unforgiving when critiquing his own play. He straddles a line separating supreme confidence and radical insecurity, a search for perfection driven by reminders of failure. He had 159 passes thrown his way without a drop, a remarkable streak that ended this year and wasn't long enough to satisfy him.
“Oh, man, you're bringing up another sore subject,'' Fitzgerald said.
Actually, Larry, that was a compliment.
“It is not,'' Fitzgerald said. “It's a lack of concentration, a lack of focus and a lack of execution on my part. I'm better than that. I need to play at a higher level, especially if I want this offense to be as good as I know we're capable of being.''
When he was a sophomore at Pitt, he had eight catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns in the FIRST HALF against Rutgers. He's still infuriated because he was shut out in the second half.
“It was not my best game,'' he said. “I should have had 300 yards in that game. If I would have taken care of business in the second half, I probably would have won the Heisman Trophy that year. I cost myself.''
See what I mean?
And you wonder why he's been so successful while other look-at-me receivers – ahem, Stevie Johnson – couldn't carry his jock. Fitzgerald's attitude prevented him from believing today's contest was a rest stop on his way to Minnesota for his homecoming game. He ignored gaudy numbers against the Bills and gushed over their defense as if they were the '85 Bears.
Let me remind you that Buffalo has been outscored, 90-17, in the past six quarters and became the first team in 62 years to allow 550 yards or more in consecutive weeks. The most remarkable statistic about their defense is that it's 31st in the league, not last. New Orleans has been worse after an offseason of turmoil connected to the bounty scandal.
“We're not going to be fooled by what's happened,'' Fitzgerald said. “Everybody has bad games, bad quarters, bad halves. We stunk the place up last week. I would be expecting them to be licking to their chops to play against us. When you wake up on Monday morning after playing against the Bills, you know you were in a fight.''
The Bills will be licking their chops? Try licking their wounds. You know you were in a fight .... ? With whom, the Muppets? C'mon, Larry, who are you kidding?
He was serious. The Cards are 31st in total offense and rushing offense. Their backs have gained only 71 yards rushing total in their last two games behind a weak offensive line.
“Listen,'' he said. “It's like somebody asking me about somebody else's marriage when my own marriage isn't good. We have a lot of problems of our own that we need to address, that we need to work on, as opposed to the Bills' issues. We put three points up on the board last week – three points. That's embarrassing.
“I know those guys are watching us offensively. Man, we've given up 17 sacks over the last two games. We haven't rushed for over 100 yards combined the last two games. I know these guys are going to be ready. Let's put it like that.''
Fine, so long as we can also put it like this: Fitzgerald plays in a different stratosphere than Michael Crabtree and Wes Welker, who abused Buffalo for more than 100 yards each in the past two weeks. It could get ugly if they don't stop a weak running game and get pressure on quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was sacked nine times last week.
Fitzgerald has had 1,000 yards receiving in six of his first eight full seasons. One of the years he didn't hit 1,000 was in 2006, when he missed three games and finished with 946. The other was his rookie year.
It has been driving him to improve, if not driving him crazy, reminding him he'll never be good enough.
It goes back to one game. That game. Everyone but Fitzgerald and Euhus, who don't belong in the same sentence, deleted the performance from memory. It continues to torment one of them.
“My greatest gift is also my greatest weakness,'' Fitzgerald said. “And it always keeps me in line.''