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The return of Fitzgerald

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You could be forgiven if you wondered just how good Larry Fitzgerald would be in 2015. Coming off an injury-plagued 2014 where he didn’t even have 800 receiving yards, and with quarterback Carson Palmer coming off a torn ACL, it seemed unlikely the 32-year-old would put up big numbers. Yet, that is precisely what he has done. His 706 yards are just 78 short of 2014’s total, and he is on pace for a career high in receptions. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league. How has Fitzgerald confounded our expectations?

Rediscovering the End Zone

Young Larry Fitzgerald was one of the best red zone threats in the NFL. Four times in five seasons, he caught at least ten touchdowns. Lately, six-point plays have been much harder to come by for the University of Pittsburgh product. In the previous four seasons combined, he had just 24, or less than he had in two seasons at his best.

In 2015, Fitzgerald is finding the end zone again. His seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games are tied for second in the NFL, behind only Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable wide receiver in the league in the red zone.

Several things stand out about Fitzgerald’s red zone work. First, the Cardinals are relying on him a lot in goal-to-go situations in particular. His seven targets there are tied for fourth. Second, he is extremely reliable. Just two of the ten passes thrown in his direction have been incomplete, best among the 25 players with ten or more red zone targets. Third, the Cardinals are spending a lot more time in goal-to-go this year. Arizona receivers have been targeted 20 times in goal-to-go situations this year, compared to 19 all last year.

The Impact of the Quarterback

The last stat brings up an important point. The 2015 Cardinals are better on offense than the 2014 Cardinals were, but the 2014 Cardinals also had three different quarterbacks start. Drew Stanton did not play as well as Carson Palmer did, and Ryan Lindley was worse. How much did playing with Stanton and Lindley hurt Fitzgerald’s numbers in 2014?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite a bit. Table 1 has the details, relying on Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR and per-play DVOA statistics:

Table 1. Larry Fitzgerald’s Production by Quarterback, 2014-15

Season/QB DYAR/game DVOA Catch Pct.
2014/Palmer 27 41.3% 80%
2014/Not Palmer -15 -34.1% 48%
2015/Palmer 31 32.3% 79%

This says what Fitzgerald has done this year with Palmer is just a continuation of what he did in Palmer’s six starts last year. The red zone numbers were not the same because Palmer was not as efficient throwing to other Arizona wide receivers last year.

Palmer was injured at midseason and Fitzgerald suffered an MCL sprain two weeks later that caused him to miss the next two games and be hobbled afterward. How much did that hurt his performance, rather than the quarterback play? Only some of it. Even in Stanton’s early season appearances, Fitzgerald was not nearly as efficient as he was with Palmer.

Targets, the Lifeblood of Production

The decline in Fitzgerald’s numbers did not come from less usage. Both Stanton and Lindley actually targeted him more frequently than Palmer did. He was thrown the ball on 17.8 percent of Palmer’s attempts last year, compared to 18.5 percent for Stanton and 20 percent for Lindley.

This is one of the ways things have changed in 2015. Last season, Palmer and Stanton targeted Fitzgerald and four other players regularly, generally at least 10 percent of the time. This year, the Cardinals have concentrated on targeting Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd much more heavily. One reason Fitzgerald has put up such numbers is he has been targeted on 26.7 percent of Palmer’s throws.

The Return of Prime Larry Fitzgerald

The target data is just one more way 2015 Larry Fitzgerald looks like 2008 or 2009 Larry Fitzgerald. Those were Kurt Warner’s last two seasons and the last time Fitzgerald played with a veteran quarterback in the midst of an outstanding season. His 2015 target percentage is right in line with how often he was targeted in those seasons. Target percentage is just one number, but high volume and a good quarterback can go a long way.

Another way this looks like prime Fitzgerald is his red zone dominance. Playing with Warner, Fitzgerald led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in both 2008 and 2009. The rise of tight ends might mean he doesn’t do the same this year, but his six touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in are the most he’s had 2009. The numbers are not quite the same (his red zone catch percentage was not close to what it had been with Warner the past two years), but they are close enough you could say this is the same Fitzgerald we’ve seen before.

What It Means Going Forward

We have seen Fitzgerald do this before, so we know he can continue to do it. For him to continue his great season, health is paramount. The table makes it clear Carson Palmer’s presence is vital. Fitzgerald’s own health is of course also exceedingly important.

Arizona’s shift to a three-headed passing game means the health of the other passing game pieces is important. Fitzgerald is the most valuable receiver in the league by FO numbers, but John Brown is second, and he ranks ahead of Fitzgerald outside the red zone. The much-improved offensive line is also key. If the good health continues, Fitzgerald should continue his late-career resurgence even if his red zone numbers decline.

Watch Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts live on TNF

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The Indianapolis Colts host the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football in a battle of two former contenders whose seasons have gone wrong.

Following a strong start, the Broncos went 1-8, as their typically astute defense has struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone. Denver’s offense has not helped the team’s cause either. The Broncos have failed to find clarity at quarterback with Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch all seeing time.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

The Colts have had their own deficiencies this season without star quarterback Andrew Luck. Jacoby Brissett has provided admirable coverage under center with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he has not been able to keep up with a Colts defense that has let up the second-most points in the NFL this season.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Broncos vs. Colts

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Watch Dallas Cowboys vs. Oakland Raiders live on SNF

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The Oakland Raiders host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to keep their playoff hopes alive.

With a win, Dallas will maintain its chances of sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card. After struggling initially, Dak Prescott has been able to adjust to life without Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott threw for three touchdowns and a season-high 332 yards in the Cowboys win last week over the New York Giants.

If the Cowboys can hang around, Elliott can give them a boost when he returns from suspension next week heading into the final stretch of the season.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

The Raiders also find themselves in need of a win as they are in the middle of a contested AFC West battle with the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. Derek Carr and the Raiders’ offense will need to improve after dropping from the league’s sixth-best offense in 2016 to 19th this season.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Cowboys vs. Raiders

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app