GREEN BAY – The juxtaposition has a strange feel to it.
While future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald could be making his final appearance at Lambeau Field on Sunday, rookie head coach Steve Wilks and quarterback Josh Rosen are making their first for the Arizona Cardinals.
Not that there's anything to make of it, necessarily, but it's just kind of odd.
On the one hand you have one of the greatest receivers ever to play the game still leading his team in receptions (44) and TD catches (five) in his 15th season, while on the other a young head coach and QB are both in search of just their third victory during an introduction to the NFL that has not gone as well as hoped.
From the Packers' perspective, let's take them one at a time.
There may not be another single opponent Green Bay's veteran players and coaches respect more than Fitzgerald both on and off the field. Ranking second all-time in receiving yards, third in receptions, and seventh in receiving TDs, plus winning the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award two years ago, only begins to describe the total package Fitzgerald is as a ballplayer and a man.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy recalled flying with his family alongside Fitzgerald's family to the Pro Bowl together one year, and the interaction only added to the "great admiration and respect" he has for such a "class act."
Tramon Williams, who has played both against and with Fitzgerald (last year with the Cardinals), called him "too good to be true" yet as genuine as they come.
Perhaps the most impressive thing, football-wise, about Fitzgerald is he ranks where he does on the all-time receiving lists despite having one elite-level QB, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, for only five of his 15 seasons. Otherwise, Carson Palmer went to one Pro Bowl with Fitzgerald, while his other QBs have run the gamut from Matt Leinart to John Skelton to current rookie first-round pick Rosen.
"It says a lot about him," Williams said. "It says he's been consistent no matter who's been under center, no matter the coaching staff, no matter the different changes they had over the years. He was the one piece that stayed consistent throughout it all. I know him from more of a personal level, and he deserves all he has."
Fitzgerald will always be remembered less than fondly by Green Bay fans for his 75-yard catch-and-run on the first series of overtime in the 2015 NFC Divisional playoff at Arizona, setting up his own game-winning touchdown on a shovel pass. It made the Aaron Rodgers-to-Jeff Janis Hail Mary magic go for naught and capped an eight-catch, 176-yard night for the former Heisman Trophy finalist and 11-time Pro Bowler.
Truthfully, as impressive as that final sequence was three years ago, his six-catch, 82-yard, two-TD outing in the '09 NFC Wild Card overtime tilt in the same stadium stood out nearly as much for what looked like a battle royale between Fitzgerald and another future Hall of Famer, Charles Woodson. Their down-after-down physicality probably would have drawn a flag on every snap if the game were replayed today.
"We just remember that Charles got run over two times and he went for touchdowns, so we complained about it, us personally as a defense," said Williams good-naturedly, able to laugh about it now. "But two thoroughbred athletes going at it. That's what football is all about.
"We don't get a chance to see that as often as we should. It was a good experience for me to see personally, those two guys going up against each other."
Surprisingly for a player who has spent his entire 15-year career in the NFC, Fitzgerald will be making just his second career appearance at Lambeau Field on Sunday. In 2006, he missed the Packers-Cardinals meeting due to injury and then in 2012, he caught six passes for 74 yards and a tackle-breaking, bull-dozing 31-yard touchdown that was classic Fitzgerald.
The surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer hasn't said how much longer he plans to play, or even if he'll play beyond 2018, but his new head coach and quarterback would probably love to keep him around as long as possible.
Wilks and Rosen haven't had the most enjoyable of inaugural seasons, though it's close to being so much better than 2-9. Three of Arizona's losses have come by three points or less, including two to postseason contenders Chicago (16-14) and Seattle (20-17), which occurred when Rosen first took the reins from veteran Sam Bradford.
Earlier in the season, this column examined the Packers' track record against rookie quarterbacks in the Mike McCarthy era. For a refresher on that background as Rosen commands Arizona's huddle on Sunday, click here.
Here's the rundown on the McCarthy Packers against rookie head coaches – a rookie head coach defined as one holding an NFL head-coaching job for the first time (not a coach in his first year with a team but who had been a head coach elsewhere in the league previously).
Over the past 13 seasons including this one, the Packers are 24-9 against rookie head coaches, a winning percentage of .727. A couple of interesting tidbits related to that number:
One-fourth of the victories, six of them, have come against the Vikings – two over Brad Childress in 2006, two over Leslie Frazier in 2011, and two over Mike Zimmer in 2014.
Also, one-third of the losses, three of them, are from McCarthy's own rookie season in 2006. Back then the Packers went 4-3, when nearly half their schedule consisted of rookie head coaches due to Childress taking over in Minnesota and Rod Marinelli doing so in Detroit. Green Bay won all four of those division games but lost three non-division games to the Saints (Sean Payton), Rams (Scott Linehan) and Jets (Eric Mangini).
The bottom line is since McCarthy's own rookie season, the Packers are 20-6 against rookie head coaches, a winning percentage of .769.
For context, the most recent of the six defeats over the last dozen seasons was this year, to the Lions and Matt Patricia. But before that Week 5 defeat, the Packers had won eight straight games against rookie head coaches dating back to a loss to Chip Kelly's Eagles in 2013, the first game after Aaron Rodgers broke his left collarbone.