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The Arizona Cardinals are set to welcome back fans this Sunday in their home opener against the Minnesota Vikings. The showdown also marks the first home game without the great Larry Fitzgerald a part of the Cardinal organization since Week 17 of 2003.
Coincidentally, the Cardinals’ opponent in that unforgettable contest some 18 years ago just so happened to also be the Minnesota Vikings.
The same Minnesota Vikings that Fitz grew up idolizing while serving as the team’s waterboy. His father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., helped orchestrate that arrangement due in part to his radio show with then Viking (and future Cardinal) head coach Denny Green.
Fast forward to December of 2003, and unbeknownst to the Fitzgerald family, their paths with Green were about to cross again thanks to a dramatic finish in the desert.
We all remember where we were when Josh McCown hit Nate Poole in the back of the end zone.
I certainty do.
That’s because the end result would have a ripple effect on Cardinal football unmatched until perhaps Kyler Murray deciding to walk away from pro baseball.
Or would it really?
A year before Larry would dawn the red and white, the Cardinals were set to conclude a miserable 2003 campaign that culminated with a regular season home finale against the 9-6 Vikings.
Minnesota, now led by Mike Tice, simply needed a victory against the dismal 3-12 Redbirds to punch their post season ticket. The Cardinals, while nowhere near the playoff race, were instead vying for the draft’s top pick the following spring.
Trailing Minnesota 17-6 with just over six minutes remaining, the aforementioned McCown would orchestrate a 14-play drive that would see Paradise Valley native Steve Bush catch a two yard touchdown to bring Arizona within five points.
The heroics continued from there, with Cardinal running back Damien Anderson securing an onside kick that would eventually setup this insane finish.
The inexplicable throw and catch sent shockwaves throughout the NFL, but especially in the Valley.
Even with the victory, the Cardinals would quickly part ways with head coach Davis McGinnis. Fast forward roughly one week later and the team’s brain trust would be holding a press conference to announce the hiring of the then 54-year old Dennis Green.
While he’s often used as a punchline around the Valley thanks to a certain “Monday Night Meltdown“, Green had a sparkling 97-62 record in 10 seasons with Minnesota.
Regardless of how people see it now, Denny Green was a big time hire for the Big Red and the Bidwill family.
From there, Green was famously quoted on numerous occasions leading up to the draft that Arizona would target Larry Fitzgerald if the Pitt standout made it to pick three.
Yet, it’s fair to wonder what would have taken place had the Cardinals not knocked off the Vikings thus “earning” the league’s worst record.
As most can remember, that faithful 2004 draft class was headlined by eventual Super Bowl winning quarterback Eli Manning. Born into NFL royalty, Eli would eventually refuse to play for the then San Diego Chargers in favor of a New York Giants franchise picking fourth overall.
San Diego would eventually settle on a package that would see NC State’s Phillip Rivers shipped out west in exchange for Manning.
It’s interesting to speculate had the Cardinals been gifted with the top pick, would they have seriously considered Eli?
Would he have seriously considered them?
Remember, this was a franchise lacking any kind of winning pedigree. They had just hired yet another new head coach and still played their games in a college stadium.
My guess is that Archie Manning would have greeted Bill Bidwill with the same warning he gave to Charger owner Dean Spanos.
Don’t draft my son.
What compounded the issue further was that both the Chargers and the Cardinals had promising day two quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Josh McCown) on their roster.
Yet it was Arizona that inevitably opted to roll with what they had in house.
Additionally, given Green’s clear infatuation with Fitzgerald, the Cardinals would have likely heeded the warning of the Mannings while opting NOT to use the first pick on Eli.
So while the Chargers eventually settled on Rivers, a player the Cardinals openly passed on drafting, it’s fair to wonder if Fitzgerald would have gone first to Arizona regardless of where they picked.
Knowing what we know now, I’d wager on Green going with the Minnesota native first overall.
Keep in mind that the Cardinals took Fitzgerald third even with a promising receiving core that included Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin and 2003 first round pick Bryant Johnson.
Green was also said to be infatuated on potentially recreating an electric receiving duo, ala Cris Carter and Randy Moss, in the pairing of Boldin and Fitzgerald.
For all his faults as a head coach, Denny knew talent when he saw it.
Once the ink was dry on the box score from that faithful Week 17 matchup against Minnesota, the only team standing between the Cardinals and Larry Legend were the hapless Oakland Raiders picking second.
Thank god for Robert Gallery.
As we sit here in the present, it’s fair to wonder how the Cardinal franchise would have fared had they ended up with the likes of Manning, Rivers or even Big Ben Roethlisberger (pick 11).
Each quarterback was drafted into somewhat stable organizations, with Manning and Roethlisberger earning their first championships in large part because of stout defenses and dominate ground attacks.
It’s safe to say those attributes were not, nor have they ever been, consistently related to the Arizona Cardinals.
All three signal callers are likely bound for the Hall of Fame, which makes me think each would have had some kind of success in the desert. They would have benefited from Green’s offensive mind while flourishing with a young Anquan Boldin.
At the end of the day, however, it just all seems like a moot point.
That’s because for 17 glorious seasons, Larry Fitzgerald has been “THE” Arizona Cardinal. He’ll no doubt one day have a statue outside State Farm Stadium, a place where he cemented his legacy as the greatest player in franchise history.
So when you settle in for this Sunday’s matchup against the Vikings, take solace in knowing that regardless of history, Fitzgerald and the Cardinals were always meant to be.