By Jason Keidel
Carson Palmer, who is younger than Tom Brady, is viewed as way more of a gridiron graybeard. Brady, for his part, has aged quite well. But beyond his high cheekbones and supermodel spouse, the Patriots quarterback is still an incredibly effective football player, which makes him either impossible to loathe, or to love.
The Cardinals quarterback has taken a different career path. Despite his fine football pedigree — from the Heisman Trophy to No. 1 overall draft pick — he just seems to have labored far more for his success. But make no mistake, Carson Palmer entered the NFL with a way more glittering resume than Brady, and way higher expectations. And while Palmer doesn’t have Brady’s bulging trophy case, Super Bowl ring collection or movie-star looks, he has been a very effective quarterback.
Indeed, Palmer was at or near the top of most MVP debates last year, setting franchise records for passing yards (4,671), passing touchdowns (35) and passer rating (104.6). Only the Carolina Panthers (500) scored more points than the Cardinals (489).
With a nuclear offense, stout defense and the second best record in the NFL (13-3), the Cardinals were poised for a Super Bowl run. But just 60 minutes from a trip to Super Bowl 50, Palmer had perhaps the worst playoff performance in NFL history.
In the NFC title game, Carolina dropped 49 points on Arizona, the most the Cardinals surrendered all season, and the most ever scored in an NFC championship game. Palmer committed an astonishing six turnovers, with four interceptions and two fumbles. He threw for just 235 yards.
Sadly, he chose the biggest game of the year to play perhaps the worst game of his career. And in the zero-sum calculus of pro football, playoff games matter more than the full slate of regular-season games. One bad Sunday in January negates all the fine, fall Sundays. And few know that better than Palmer.
Palmer is in a great position to shake his haunted playoff past, as the Cardinals are regarded by many to be the best overall team in the NFL. On defense they have arguably the best cornerback in Patrick Peterson, the best safety in Tyrann Mathieu and a rabid pass rush. The Cardinals defense had the fourth best turnover differential (plus-9) and the fifth-ranked unit in 2015.
On offense they have the greatest over-30 wideout in history, Larry Fitzgerald, who is flanked by studs in John Brown and Michael Floyd, a burgeoning superstar at RB in David Johnson and perhaps the best head coach west of the Mississippi, Bruce Arians.
Indeed, few believe in the power and magic of sequels or second chances more than Bruce Arians, who was stunningly fired by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and left for coaching carrion, a man too young to retire yet too old to get his first shot under the headset.
Yet he got such a chance in Indianapolis, when coach Chuck Pagano was stricken by leukemia. The twin serendipities of Pagano’s full recovery and Arians acing his test as interim coach gave him new life and renewed interest from the league.
Arizona took a flier on Arians, who continues to improve at his coaching craft. And he saw another NFL graybeard with something to prove in Palmer.
Whether it’s karma or kismet or whatever alchemy that brought Arians and Palmer together, it’s hard to bet against the duo. And harder to root against them. Palmer has been here before, as the quarterback of a rather fertile football roster. About 10 years ago, he was poised to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl, only to have his knee rolled in a playoff game against the Steelers. The Bengals lost the game, and the dynamic was never the same.
In Arizona he found a soft, safe landing with a robust roster and a coaching staff that is entirely invested in him.
Palmer, 36, just signed a one-year extension, making him a Cardinal through 2018. The salary is a formality, as is the length. At this point in any player’s career, you live on the ledge of yearly assessments. Likewise, his future Hall of Fame safety blanket, Fitzgerald, who turns 33 in three weeks, signed an extension through 2017.
Few players of any age are surrounded by more talent than Palmer is this year. It’s as if the football gods gave him an implicit nod, a karmic kickback for all the lousy luck he’s endured over the last dozen years.
You don’t have to be a Bengals or Cardinals fan to root for Carson Palmer. You don’t even have to be a big football fan. You just have to hope that good things happen to humble men. Few players have played as well as long as Palmer without reaching the top rungs of the sport.
Coincidentally, Vegas has the Cardinals and Panthers tied at 11-to-1 odds to win it all, just behind the Patriots, Packers, and Seahawks as Super Bowl favorites. But Palmer, more than anyone, is the sentimental favorite to get his first ring before fading into the Arizona dusk. He’s been dealt some decent cards with the Cardinals, and now has one year to cash in.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.