It’s never easy being Carson Palmer.
Sure, he was the No. 1 pick just as the NFL was moving gradually toward being a passing league. He has started 160 games during a 13-year career that has earned him hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the surface level rarely explains the chaos inside, the kind unseen in high-definition pixelation or fantasy football standings. In the same time Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger have played for one franchise each, Palmer has split his time between three. The NFL is a league built on quarterback stability and longevity. Palmer’s career has been a roller coaster, and it’s headed for another climb.
In 2006 with the Bengals, he was coming back from his first ACL tear, which came in his first playoff start and his breakout season.
In 2009, still with the Bengals, it was a return from almost an entire season lost to injuries to his elbow, ankle and even his nose.
In 2011, it was a new lease on his career after he demanded a trade from Cincinnati after threatening retirement. There’s no place to start over like Oakland, which was then the epicenter of uncertainty as it shuffled through three head coaches in three seasons.
In 2013, it was from a two-year Oakland stint that just didn’t work, where a touchdown-interception ratio of 35-30 and a starting record of 8-16 started talk about whether the 34-year-old was washed up. That’s when he signed with the Cardinals to start over yet again.
In 2015, it was from another ACL tear, this one after a 6-0 start in which he threw 11 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, and everything felt right again.
And then there was Sunday night’s opener against the Patriots in Arizona. Palmer took the ball with 3 minutes, 44 seconds left with his team trailing by two, the perfect start to another campaign for a player who has built a career on trying to come back. And he engineered it well, as he often has in Arizona, the revival stop of his winding career. Palmer was 7 of 9 on the final drive, his final throw an 18-yarder across the middle that was 5 yards short of the first down. It set up a 47-yard field-goal attempt for Chandler Catanzaro, but it went wide left to seal a 23-21 loss.
Palmer is 37 years old. The three-time Pro Bowler is coming off the best year of his career, when he led a 13-3 Cardinals team with top-five league finishes in yards, touchdown passes and yards per attempt. And he yet again faces questions — for how it ended and for the distance between all the success and where he could be right now.
It was one weak postseason, and then one long offseason, and then one lackluster preseason, and then one so-so first start to the season. The whispers have returned. As good as the Cardinals roster is with defensive stars like Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson and dazzling skill players like Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson, they don’t need Palmer to just be pretty good, like he was Sunday night, when he came up short. They need him to be great.
Bruce Arians’ system demands it out of his quarterback, which is why his past three starters have been Palmer, Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. His trademark offense is a vertical system that requires a star to stand back and deliver deep passes into tight windows with consistent accuracy. Palmer did it masterfully last year, and the Cardinals posted a franchise record for wins, but he’ll need to do it again.
Palmer’s scuffles since breaking his finger late in the regular season last year have created those questions. His first performance of 2016 was an efficient one in which he completed 24 of 37 passes for 271 yards, 2 touchdowns and zero interceptions. But he was also aided by some acrobatic catches by Fitzgerald and rarely challenged the deep safeties. He engineered all of 21 points at home against a Patriots team that was missing its top two pass rushers from last season.
It was only Week 1, and not enough happened good or bad with Palmer to deliver many answers, so the questions will continue. The resilient quarterback is entering a special territory. With organizational stability he hasn’t enjoyed much in his career, he’s in as good of a setting to produce offensively and to win as he has at any point in his career. He’s also watching the window shrink now that he’s 37 years old.
The Cardinals are waiting to see if Palmer has one more comeback in him.