Cardinals' Fitzgerald not ready to return to earth

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As he will Sunday, Larry Fitzgerald draws a crowd during interview earlier this week.

TAMPA - Uneasy rest the flowing braids that wear the crown as Super Bowl week's dominant player.

Or so an eloquent sage once said. Shakespeare? Emmitt Smith? Details are fuzzy.

Talking to Larry Fitzgerald, though, you get the sense he isn't sure that he's "all that," the way the media, his teammates, the opposing Pittsburgh Steelers and the public seem to think.

"It's a little different, a little weird," Fitzgerald, 25, said yesterday. "I'm trying to get there. I want to be a dominant player in this game. But as I watch myself on tape, there's still things I really need to improve on, to be the consistently dominant player that you see - the LaDainian Tomlinsons, the Peyton Mannings . . . they've been dominating from year-to-year. I continue to work toward that."

The playoff stats are startling - 23 catches in three games, for 419 yards and five touchdowns. No NFL player has ever compiled that many receiving yards in his first three playoff games. No NFL player has ever compiled that many receiving yards in any postseason, ever - and Fitzgerald still has this little thing called Super Bowl XLIII to add to his ledger.

He was the NFC's leading receiver in the regular season (96 catches for 1,431 yards), and in the playoffs, he has gone from excellent to seemingly unstoppable. Ask the Eagles, who watched Fitzgerald tie a league postseason record with three TD catches (all in the first half!) in their NFC Championship Game loss to the Cards.

"If you can say you're happy for anybody, I would say he's one of the guys that I'm definitely happy to see getting the chance to go on the national stage and show what type of player he is," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said yesterday. Dawkins clearly would have been much happier if he and his teammates had denied Fitzgerald this opportunity and claimed it for themselves, but they fell short there, to the tune of nine catches for 152 yards. "We didn't do a good job of recognizing where he was at all times and making sure we paid attention to him."

Dawkins' Steelers counterpart, Troy Polamalu, was asked this week what he thought Pittsburgh had to do to stop Fitzgerald.

"We don't know," Polamalu said. "Nobody has been able to contain him yet."

Somehow, it seems unlikely that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has just thrown his hands up in exasperation and will head into Sunday without an aggressive plan for dealing with the Cards' chief game-changer, the one talent many observers say could tilt the field in the direction of the underdogs.

"I'm not the first good receiver they've played against, and I won't be the last," Fitzgerald said yesterday.

He might be the best, though.

On media day, somebody told Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark that Fitzgerald was especially aware of Clark's hitting prowess, that Fitzgerald had warned it would be important to "look out for No. 25."

Clark wasn't buying it.

"I think he just wanted to be nice to me. Then he's going to try to jump over my head and catch the ball," Clark said. "If I was him, I would definitely not be worried about me. He's an unbelievable guy . . . I guess it is a compliment that he actually knows my number."

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor agreed that Fitzgerald, who seems to work best in traffic, has "a mean jump game."

Taylor said it's been interesting to watch the media discover Fitzgerald during the Cardinals' run to the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl.

"Y'all got to understand, man - Fitzgerald's been doing this since college. Now that we're on a bigger stage, people are starting to see what he can do . . . He has unbelievable hands. I believe I've seen one drop out of 19 games I watched [on film]. That speaks volumes, right there."

But according to Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, and to Fitzgerald himself, the third overall draft pick from the University of Pittsburgh in 2004 is not the same exact receiver you will see on Sunday.

"The last 2 years that we've been with him, the most noticeable improvement has been his run after the catch, his route running, and even parts of his game like blocking downfield," Whisenhunt said yesterday. "I think Larry has always had that ability to catch the football, but as a player that wants to be great, he's worked hard at the little things, as we say, to improve his game. I believe that's why he's had such a successful year this year and such a fantastic postseason."

How do you improve your run after the catch?

Fitzgerald said what he has worked on is getting more separation before the catch - though he doesn't seem to need much, with his 6-3 size, body control, leaping ability and sense of balance.

"If I . . . beat a guy and he's draped all over me and I catch the ball, he's going to tackle me right there on the spot," Fitzgerald explained. "But if I'm running better routes and getting in and out of my breaks quicker, I'm able to get more separation, and when I'm catching the ball and running full speed, I'm able to run away from guys, or maybe break a tackle and take a better angle. I think losing weight and becoming a better route runner has helped me."

These are the kinds of details Fitzgerald frets about. It's an unusual mind-set for a dominant wideout - they tend to be more worried about their touchdown celebrations or TV highlight-show appearances. But this is a big part of what makes Fitzgerald so good.

Here's a sampling of what concerns him, going into Sunday:

"A route that's supposed to be a 12-yard route, you run 11, and a defensive lineman tips the ball because you're coming out of your break too fast? You've missed your opportunity to win the Super Bowl," Fitzgerald said. "I just don't want to be that guy that at the end of the day is pointed at as the guy who didn't get his job done." *