At 36 years old, Carson Palmer is having the best season of his career. He threw for a career-high 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns during the regular season, both franchise records. The Cardinals just posted their best regular season record since the first half of the 20th century. Palmer shouldn't be this good, not this long after being written off as a "pretty good" quarterback, and not in a system as demanding as Bruce Arians' deep passing attack.
And certainly not after looking like a one-hit superstar with the Cincinnati Bengals, burnt out on his brief heyday. Palmer was named one of the top 10 most-hated players in the NFL by Forbes in 2011. A lot of Bengals fans still think he should go to Hell, or worse, after he demanded a trade and then quasi-retired after the 2010 season.
It's still not clear why Palmer wanted out of Cincinnati so badly -- the only outward sign was the Bengals' 4-12 record -- but when Andy Dalton emerged as a rookie and Palmer's production declined after tearing a ligament in his elbow in 2008, the Bengals could contentedly trade him to the Oakland Raiders for a first- and second-round pick.
And they were right! They were right to rely on Dalton, who has been as good as or better than Palmer in the intervening years. Fans are right to be mad at Palmer, who cooed about how wonderful it would be to spend his career in one place then bolted with three seasons left on the deal that would have amounted to $118.75 million over nine years. Palmer insists that he was justified, that there is more to the Bengals situation that he could reveal but isn't out of courtesy. By doing so, he comes off as covering his ass.
But now on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, Palmer and the Cardinals have come out ahead in the aftermath of the Palmer trade. It should have been a safe bet that Palmer wouldn't play like an NFL MVP, and that he, not Dalton, would break down late in the season. Palmer is a tear in the fabric of NFL wisdom. He's been great for reasons that still aren't clear.
Maybe Palmer needed the Cardinals
Palmer has been this good before. In 2005, his second season, Palmer led the NFL in completion percentage and touchdown passes while recording the first season by a Bengals quarterback with a passer rating better than 100. The Bengals gave him his big extension on Dec. 29. Ten days later, he tore his ACL in a Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He declined after that, from a 101.1 rating to 93.9 in 2006 and 86.7 in 2007. He played four bad games in 2008 -- three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 69 rating -- then came back as a grumpy replacement-plus level passer with the Bengals and Raiders. He played well for the Cardinals in 2014, but again couldn't stay healthy, starting just six games and winning them all. He tore his ACL a second time against St. Louis.
Palmer's revival has few corollaries. Brett Favre is the easy answer, but he's Hercules, and no one took him for granted even before his MVP-caliber 2009 season at 40 years old. Jeff Garcia had three bland seasons in San Francisco, Cleveland and Detroit before coasting into the twilight by winning 19 games in his final 30 starts with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. He was never as good as Palmer has been this season, however.
The Kurt Warner comparison is the most obvious, and also the only correct answer. Warner fell out of grace in St. Louis after his Super Bowl and MVP season in 2001. He broke his finger in 2002, was benched after one game in 2003, then spent four seasons trying to convince head coaches he could still be an NFL starter. In 2008, second-year Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt committed to him, and at 37 years old, Warner threw for 30 touchdowns and nearly 4,600 yards before leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Like Warner before him, Palmer bounced back for two reasons: 1) He stayed healthy and 2) his coaching staff showed confidence in him. The Cardinals got Palmer in 2013 for just a sixth-round and a conditional pick from the Raiders -- far, far less than what the Raiders gave up in 2011 -- but first-year general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians treated Palmer like the coup he has proven to be. When the Cardinals got Palmer in April, Arians immediately put the team in his hands.
"I'm here to introduce our starting quarterback," Arians said at Palmer's introductory press conference, "and put it to bed. We're extremely excited about our new starting quarterback, Carson Palmer."
Arians and Palmer have been tight since the moment they partnered. The rapport they have today is encapsulated by this exchange:
Arians raved about how good his players looked Tuesday when they reported for the first day of strength and conditioning work.
"There was not a bad body in the room," Arians said.
"You saying you got a good body?" Palmer said to the coach.
"Yeah, buddy," Arians replied. "Sixty and sexy, baby."
It isn't a mentor-mentee relationship like Arians had with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck as rookies. Palmer had already been chewed up by football by the time he met Arians. To an extent, so had Arians, who had been a successful offensive position coach and coordinator for 35 years before getting his first NFL head coaching job at 60.
Arians called it "a totally different drinking relationship." Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told ESPN that he has never seen the two yell at each other, just "high fiving after [Palmer] throws touchdowns."
Arians and Keim thought Palmer was perfect for the Cardinals' offense when they traded for him. Conversely, Palmer might not have thrived like this with any other team. Keim and Arians had keen eyes, and Palmer's final act has been his best as a result.
Maybe the Cardinals need Palmer
Palmer still has to play well. The Cardinals offense wasn't this good -- No. 2 in the NFL in points per game, No. 1 in yards -- last season while Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley combined to take the majority of snaps. Palmer not only knows Arians' offense, but he mitigates its shortcomings.
Palmer went deep more often than any quarterback in the NFL this season despite what should be a weary arm. According to Pro Football Focus, the average depth of his targets was a league-high 11.5 yards downfield. Going deep didn't hurt his efficiency. He still averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, best in the league among qualified passers, with a solid 2.05 percent interception rate, especially for a quarterback who has struggled with turnovers. Only Russell Wilson (110.1) and Dalton (106.3) had better passer ratings than Palmer's 104.6. His touchdown-to-interception ratios in each of his last two seasons (a combined 46 to 14) were better than in any of his previous 10.
Palmer did all that behind an iffy offensive line. Pro Football Focus graded the Cardinals as the third-worst team in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency. That's nominally a bad sign for an offense that relies on deeper, longer-developing routes, but Palmer hasn't hesitated to pull the trigger in the face of pressure, and has been one of the most accurate passers in the NFL when staring down pass rushers.
Completion % while under pressure in 2015: Carson Palmer 57.8%, Tom Brady 50.8%, Cam Newton 49.7% #MVP— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 12, 2016
Because Palmer takes good care of himself in the pocket, the Cardinals offensive line can specialize in the running game. Football Outsiders has the Cardinals as the third-best run blocking team in the NFL. During the regular season Arizona ranked eighth in rushing at 119.8 yards per game and 12th at 4.2 yards per carry.
The best part about the Cardinals offense is that it has played at an elite level despite star players who were considered sub-elite before the season began. Like Palmer, Fitzgerald and running back Chris Johnson were damaged goods. Fitzgerald, the hero of the Cardinals' incredible overtime win over the Green Bay Packers last week, hadn't had more than 1,000 yards receiving since 2011. Johnson, who suffered a fractured tibia at the end of November, was on pace for his most rushing yards since 2012.
Palmer's presence on this offense is due to a Rube Goldberg-ian confluence of events. In other versions of this universe, the Bengals hold on to Palmer out of spite, or Palmer follows through on retirement rumors, or Arians never gets his chance to be a head coach, or Palmer stays healthy in Oakland, or Dalton struggles as a rookie. Maybe a ref tosses a coin to start overtime and it actually flips and comes up tails.
That Palmer and the Cardinals have made it this far, to this very point, is weird enough. Feel free to slap your knee and guffaw at an offense that could have been an abomination if any aspect of it was different. If the Cardinals advance to the Super Bowl -- hell, win it -- it'll be a minor miracle that is still more likely than a lot of the things that allowed it to happen.