Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.
Larry Fitzgerald is one of the greatest wideouts in NFL history and the best to ever wear an Arizona Cardinals uniform. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions. Now, Fitzgerald is entering his 16th season in the NFL and despite being constantly asked about his eventual retirement, he continues to show up every training camp.
Fitzgerald has been a steady presence for Arizona even through the team’s ups and downs. Every time you turn on a Cardinals game, you are almost certain to see him line up at the top or bottom of your screen when they are on offense.
In an era when it’s rare to see a player not change teams during his career, Fitzgerald is to be the antithesis to that. But his time with the Cardinals could have ended a lot sooner.
Fitzgerald was nearly a Philadelphia Eagle
At the end of 2007, Fitzgerald had just wrapped up a season in Arizona where he put up monster numbers. He averaged a career-high 93.9 yards per game and recorded 100 receptions for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns — all of which fell into the top 10 at his position.
Fitzgerald was still on his rookie year deal, which had numerous incentives included. With his production, a lot of those clauses were activated and suddenly the Cardinals were tight for cap space.
Arizona heavily considered moving him during the 2008 offseason instead of signing him to a new deal, as Fitzgerald revealed years down the line. The supposed trade would’ve sent him to Philadelphia, in exchange for the Eagles’ first- and third-round picks. It would have been a massive deal, one which would have shifted the NFL landscape and altered the paths taken by both franchises.
Ripple Effect No. 1: The Cardinals draft DeSean Jackson
For starters, if the trade happens it drastically changes the success Arizona achieved the following year.
The 2008 season was a historic one for the Cardinals. With Kurt Warner at quarterback, Fitzgerald continued to light up opposing secondaries. He eclipsed the 1,400-yard mark again and led the league with 12 receiving touchdowns.
Arizona made the playoffs with a 9-7 record and Fitzgerald was stellar in his first postseason run. In four games, he caught a whopping seven touchdowns and had 546 receiving yards, both single-season playoff records. His most heroic score was the 55-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl which put the Cardinals up late in the fourth quarter.
Despite Fitzgerald’s best efforts, Arizona lost in heartbreaking fashion as Santonio Holmes made one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history to clinch a 27-23 victory for the Steelers.
The Cardinals likely take a different course of action if they trade Fitzgerald in 2008. Most significantly, they probably don’t make Super Bowl 43 without him. Their offense would still be fine, just not as explosive, with Anquan Boldin as the main wideout and Steve Breaston getting more snaps. There might have also been another receiver added to the mix.
With Fitzgerald gone and the trade complete, the Cardinals would have had the No. 16 and No. 19 picks in the 2008 NFL Draft, with the latter coming from Philadelphia. Given that Arizona was coming off a year when it ranked No. 28 in the league in passing yards allowed, it still would’ve taken cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at No. 16 to shore up its secondary. But with its second first-round pick, there’s a good chance the Cardinals would address the hole left by Fitzgerald.
Players like Limas Sweed, Devin Thomas, and DeSean Jackson were all available to draft at No. 19. While none of these guys in real life were actually drafted in the first round, in the hypothetical situation the Cardinals need a wide receiver and would go get California’s Jackson, giving them a deep threat who can burn defenses with blazing speed.
Taking Early Doucet in the third round, which actually happened, is still on the board as Arizona centers in on the duo of him and Jackson as the future of its wide receiving corps. Although defenses wouldn’t be keying in on one wideout like they usually did with Fitzgerald, Jackson’s speed and big-play ability would open up some space for Breaston and Boldin.
It’s fun to imagine Warner throwing deep shots to Jackson a couple of times per game. While it might have not led to the success they would have had with Fitzgerald, the Cardinals would have been an interesting project to watch.
Ripple Effect No. 2: The Eagles make Super Bowl 43
Acquiring Fitzgerald would have drastically altered the future of the Eagles as well. First, they wouldn’t have drafted Jackson in the second round. This immediately robs us of some memorable moments, including his celebration against the Dallas Cowboys in 2010 after a 91-yard touchdown, him inexplicably fumbling the ball on the goal line against them in 2008, and of course the Miracle in the Meadowlands, Part II:
With Fitzgerald as their star wideout, the Eagles still make the playoffs and finish with a better record than the one they posted in 2008 at 9-6-1. He would be paired up with Donovan McNabb as the quarterback entered the twilight of his career. In his second-to-last season in Philadelphia, McNabb still put decent numbers as the starter. He threw for over 3,900 yards and 23 touchdowns in that season.
Those numbers would have been even better with Fitzgerald as his main target. Fitzgerald’s route running and hands would help establish a solid connection between the two. Fitzgerald would be the first wideout on the depth chart, with Jason Avant on the other side of the field and Brian Westbrook as the workhorse.
Fitzgerald was instrumental in the real 2008 NFC title game that pitted the Eagles against the Cardinals. His biggest play came when he scored a 62-yard touchdown in the second quarter to put the Cardinals up, 14-3. Fitzgerald torched Philadelphia’s secondary the entire day, going off for 152 yards on nine catches and three touchdowns to lead Arizona to a 32-25 victory.
Considering he was the main reason why Philadelphia didn’t win the NFC Championship in the first place, it feels right to have the Eagles make the Super Bowl in this reality. It would be their second time in five years reaching the big game, giving head coach Andy Reid another shot at the Lombardi Trophy. It’d also set up a rematch with the Steelers, who the Eagles beat 15-6 in Week 3 earlier that season.
This brings up an interesting question when it comes to future of their core. Who knows, maybe the Eagles front office sees their appearance and possible win in the Super Bowl — which would have been their first ever — and lets the Reid-McNabb duo run a little bit longer, instead of trading away the quarterback in the 2010 offseason.
Fitzgerald would be signed to a long-term deal, since Philadelphia wouldn’t want to lose him in free agency for nothing. With him still being in his prime, he’d continue to put up numbers with McNabb as his quarterback.
Ripple Effect No. 3: Philadelphia doesn’t trade for Jason Peters
The Fitzgerald trade would also change Philadelphia’s future drafts and roster. In 2008, the Eagles moved their first-rounder to the Carolina Panthers for the 43rd and 109th selections and a first-rounder the following year. By not having Carolina’s first-rounder in this alternate universe, the Eagles wouldn’t have been able to pull off the trade that gave them offensive lineman Jason Peters.
In 10 years and counting with the team, Peters is a seven-time Pro Bowler and has been a dependable anchor on the left side of its offensive line. But in this reality, the Eagles likely don’t have the assets to entice the Buffalo Bills in 2009 to trade for him.
After making a deal with Carolina, Philadelphia made another draft-day trade in 2008 with the Minnesota Vikings. The Eagles moved the 43rd pick and the 152nd pick to Minnesota for picks No. 47 and 117. Those two picks ended up becoming defensive tackle Trevor Laws and cornerback Quintin Demps, who played on multiple NFL teams in his career.
While the Eagles did end up with an All-Pro offensive lineman, a solid cornerback, a defensive tackle who played 56 games for them, and one of the more electrifying wide receivers in his era in Jackson, it all wouldn’t have happened if the Fitzgerald trade had gone through back in 2008.
Sending Fitzgerald to Philadelphia would have shifted the landscape of the NFC and the entire league in general.
Without Fitzgerald, Arizona doesn’t have its miracle run to Super Bowl 43 and in turn we probably don’t get the iconic image of Holmes making a tip-toe catch with two Cardinals defenders all over.
Reid is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, but in his coaching career he has fallen just short of a championship. Fitzgerald is one of the best players to have never won a ring. Things could have been different, though. They both could have gotten that elusive Super Bowl title and added another chapter to their storied legacies.