Carson Palmer, Don't Stop Believing
By Joe Darrah
Although he’s close to two years removed from shedding his orange-and-black Bengal skin, quarterback Carson Palmer has become all the more linked with another endangered species — the aging NFL quarterback.
When he takes his first snap with Arizona, the 33-year-old Palmer will rank as the fourth-oldest starting quarterback in the NFL, behind only future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. With 17 teams electing to entrust their teams to signal-callers aged 25 and younger (including Arizona, with two), Palmer should feel grateful to have the opportunity he’s looking at — even if he’s being tasked with leading an offense that finished dead-last in average yards gained per game from scrimmage in 2012.
But as he’s set to embark upon a training camp with his third (and most likely final) franchise as the designated starter, it’s tough to classify his legacy and what this year means to his career. Should he be seen as a franchise quarterback in transition, or is he just the stop-gap, transplanted veteran who is being asked to buy the organization some time to find it’s true franchise guy? Is he closer to being the guy who was once envisioned to be a perennial All-Pro before a devastating knee injury changed the course of his maturity, or is he more closely identifiable with the type who can light up a stat sheet and win more games than he loses?
Today’s NFL doesn’t offer much of a grace period in either scenario, but if there is anyone capable of successfully subjecting himself to the throes of such uncertainty in this league it might just be Palmer. Considering he’ll be playing for a coach in Bruce Arians, who has cemented himself as one of the game’s top mentors of quarterbacks (see Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. With all due respect to the NFC West, it appears the quarterback, the coach and the organization are coming together to fill voids of need. Palmer needs a fresh start since being removed from a contentious situation in Cincinnati, Arians needs a veteran who can help guide the implementation of a new regime and the team needs a new leader who allows them to immediately move past the mess that was last season.
Then there’s Larry Fitzgerald, the veteran wide receiver who is still arguably the game’s best and is constantly questioned on his decision to stick with the Cardinals. The pairing of Palmer and Fitzgerald stands to be the more significant of mergers moving forward and, according to recent reports, has gotten off to a congenial start. With a new coaching staff in place, both at least have the benefit of learning the nuances of a new offense together — and both have been planning to connect during Fitzgerald’s personal training camp this summer, according to USA Today.
Until the 2013 season unfolds, all there is to go on is past experiences. Fitzgerald seems undoubtedly in position to improve on a 798-yard output from last season, which marked his lowest yardage total since his rookie year (780) and fewest career touchdowns (four), while Palmer clearly hasn’t shown many statistical signs of any lingering elbow problems that kept him out of 12 games in 2008. He’s thrown for at least 3,000 yards in three of the four seasons since (with the only exception being 2011 during a trade holdout) and last year became only the second Raider in history to surpass 4,000 yards (4,018; 10th in NFL).
The only numbers that don’t really support that — and this is not an attempt to shrug at them — is his winning percentage and interception total. Over his last three seasons, Palmer has won just 12 games (.300) compared to the Cards’ 18 wins, via its quarterback carousel since the departure of Kurt Warner. He’s markedly better in just about every other statistical category, but stats won’t buy him much time for a head coach expected to return the team to contention since nearly winning Super Bowl XLIII. He also won’t be afforded the “excuse” of being subjected to organizational demons that he could justifiably claim have contributed to his returning to the playoffs just once since his scary knee injury in 2005.
Granted his time in Oakland wasn't a success by any stretch of the imagination beyond his being an adequate performer in fantasy football at times (Oakland went a combined 8-15 with him as a starter in his two seasons), but when looked at objectively there’s reason to believe he wasn’t the main culprit. He showed flashes of his Pro Bowl days in his first month in the Bay Area, winning three of his first four games as a starter, but threw an alarming number of interceptions (16) in just nine weeks' worth of games. One who has always committed his fair share of picks — he had thrown at least 18 in three separate seasons as a Bengal — the nearly 2,800 yards and 13 touchdowns he accumulated during the same span was enough to validate a second chance in 2012.
In 2013, Palmer will have the most to prove and the most to lose. It’s probably unrealistic to think that anyone in the desert is anticipating a trip to New York in February, but for a team that lost 11 of 12 games after a 4-0 start to 2012 some level of winning is to be expected, if not demanded. And should any of the other 31 teams in the league add to the growing number of starting young gunslingers as fall becomes winter, the preservation of Palmer in Glendale will become that much difficult to maintain.