This is the story of Carson Palmer, an NFL player who was put out to pasture years ago. Drafted first overall in 2003 out of USC, Palmer played several years for the Cincinnati Bengals, often surrounded by a mediocre cast of characters. His knee was blown out in 2006 by a pretty tough-to-defend cheap shot, and he rehabbed to get back.
Depending on who you listen to, either Palmer underperformed with a decent team around him or he received mixed signals from ownership but in the 2011 offseason Palmer had had enough. He demanded to be traded or he said he would retire.
I tend to believe Palmer’s side of the story because I really like him and I think Bengals owner Mike Brown is generally an archaic dbag from a different century, but after drafting quarterback Andy Dalton, Brown adamantly refused to trade Palmer.
No one was going to tell Mike Brown what to do on his own team! On the team his daddy gave him! So Palmer languished there in limbo.
I like to think that those moments were the toughest of Carson Palmer’s career. I think it took courage to do what he did and just decide that this wasn’t the place for him. I like to think he talked it out with friends and family and co-workers and probably met with quite a few raised eyebrows, but he stuck to his guns. The Bengals were not what he wanted anymore. They were toxic to him. They had different goals and a stifling environment and he was done with it. Done.
But the fact is, players — especially franchise quarterbacks — NEVER take their ball and go home. They never say fuck you like that. Never never never. So Palmer had to be motivated beyond belief to put his livelihood on the line.
So what do you do when a man like Mike Brown calls that bluff? Fine, asshole. Go ahead and retire. Mike Brown had a defensible position. You’re under contract, get out there and play. You can’t have the goddamn inmates running the asylum.
Imagine that 6’5” Carson Palmer frame just sitting there, twirling a ball in his fingers, knowing that he might be done. Knowing that he had more in the tank and more great plays in him and more to give, but that he might be done anyway.
Weeks later, an unlikely savior arrived. The Oakland Raiders needed a quarterback and had a legacy of stupid front office decisions. They pried Palmer away from the Bengals for the ungodly asking price of a first and conditional second round pick, (which ultimately turned into cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Giovani Bernard.)
Mike Brown came out of it smelling like a rose and the traitor Carson Palmer slunk away to Oakland where he spent two years shitting on the field and getting his ass fed to him for brunch every Sunday to the tune of an 8-16 record.
At the end of his tenure with the Raiders, Palmer was dealt for a steak sandwich and a can of RC cola to the Arizona Cardinals, where every expectation of an apathetic football audience was that he would continue to stink up the joint.
But a great coach can change everything. And Bruce Arians is a great coach.
Arians served as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers for five years and was due to return in 2012 when ownership basically overruled head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and pocket vetoed his contract. It was clearly not what Arians wanted and not what Tomlin or Roethlisberger wanted, and very clearly the decision of owner Art Rooney II, but this cryptic blurb from Tomlin was all that was heard on the subject:
“Bruce Arians has informed me that he will retire from coaching. I appreciate his efforts over the past five years as the team’s offensive coordinator and for helping lead our offense to new heights during his time with the Steelers. I am grateful to Bruce for contributing to our success and wish him nothing but the best in his retirement.”
I like to think that when Bruce Arians was in that period of his life, where everyone knew that he had been shitcanned, and he had sat there alone, wondering what to do, that he felt something inside of him. Something that told him he wasn’t done. Something that pushed him to continue to suffer the interminable hours of an NFL coach to try to build something he could be proud of. Something great. Deep down, I hope it was that unfinished business feeling that made him keep going.
Arians latched on as offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts and was elevated to interim head coach when head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer. He promptly led the Colts to a 9-3 record, becoming the first interim coach to ever win nine games. He was also awarded the honor of NFL Coach of the Year in 2012, becoming the only interim coach to ever win that. After his time in Indianapolis he was widely courted, and it looked like he might end up in the windy city before he ultimately landed in Arizona. And when he did, he needed a quarterback to build around.
Enter the forgotten, never-won-a-damn thing Carson Palmer.
Arians brought him up to speed and for the first time in what seems like a long, moderately unspectacular career, Palmer seemed to be playing up to his potential. He looked solid, and the Cards opened the season with six straight wins and shot to first place in their division: a virtual playoff lock. He signed a fifty million dollar extension with the Cardinals and two days later, he blew out his ACL on a nondescript play where a defender barely made contact and that was it.
Season over. The Cards started a retinue of gap-fillers at the quarterback position but no one had the juice to run the Arians offense and what began as a promising season ended with a puff of smoke, the way so many NFL seasons do.
And I like to think that that’s when the world might have forgotten about Carson Palmer once more. We’d seen this fucking movie. Glass Man Breaks Again, film at 11. Yawn. But Palmer had come back before and this time he had had a taste of something amazing: the Bruce Arians downfield passing game. I like to think it was like a drug to him. Like Will Ferrell tasting that first beer in Old School.
It was like nothing he’d ever had before and he was determined to get back to it. Like Soran trying to get back to the Nexus. Nothing was going to stop him. Not the pain or the hours upon hours of rehab or the relative unlikelihood of a thirty four year old broken-down relic off his second fucked-up knee making a true comeback.
308 days later, Carson Palmer led the Cardinals to an opening week victory over the New Orleans Saints, 31-19.
In week two he went to the windy city, where his coach was passed over, and crushed the Bears, 48-23.
Last week, he kicked the holy shit out of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, 47-7.
The Cardinals are 3-0. First place in their division. They’re fourth place all time in points scored in the opening three games. They’re averaging an astounding 42 points per game. That’s not an accident. Last week during halftime, with his team leading handily, San Francisco Bruce Arians made it clear that he was taking no prisoners this season:
The Cardinals have more difficult games on the horizon. They have a crazy four return touchdowns in three games. That can’t be sustained. It’s unlikely that they’ll continue to have a 90% red zone efficiency. It’s unlikely that everything will go their way, but right now this island of misfit toys is killing it. Chris Johnson, a maligned former superstar was picked up off the trash heap and ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu was a ne’er do well with a skill set that made him a Heisman finalist but a five cent head that got him kicked off his college program for being a complete ass. He was widely removed from draft boards around the league but Arians took a shot on him, taking him with the 69th overall pick. The media spent weeks annihilating Arians for that ‘mistake.’
This was Mathieu last week relieving Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick of a telegraphed pass.
And don’t forget about perennial pro bowler and outstanding human being Larry Fitzgerald, who looks ten years younger and has 23 receptions for 333 yards and five - count ‘em FIVE touchdowns in three games. He looked like a broken man last season as a cohort of college level players were unable to throw him free.
But he never once complained. He never called out a single quarterback. He never made it about him. He’s as classy as it gets. Larry Fitzgerald caught the go ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl five years ago and was two minutes and thirty-seven seconds away from being a world champion … before victory was snatched away by the Pittsburgh Steelers and their offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians.
We’re only three games into a very young season, and you have to worry about Palmer’s durability until, frankly, you don’t. If it were legal to roll him into the huddle on a segue I’m sure Arians would opt for that. But in lieu of that, the Cards are doing a good job protecting him: allowing only one sack on the year. Other, more storied franchises, tend to dominate the sports media cycle. But right now the Cardinals are strong in all three phases of the game. Palmer looks rejuvenated. Fitz looks like a man on a mission. Arians won’t take his foot off the gas. They can pass, they can run, and most importantly, they can play defense. Right now, there’s not a single team in the NFL they can’t trade body blows with.
There’s this old chestnut floating around out there — and honestly I forget where I first heard it — about Carlos Santana, who was a dinosaur in the record industry at the time, approaching producer Clive Davis and saying “I know I have one great album left in me.” The following year, in 1999, he came out with Supernatural, which went platinum fifteen times, won nine Grammys and Album of the Year.
Every NFL season is met with twists and turns, injuries and unforeseen setbacks, but one can’t help shake that feeling that dinosaurs like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald and Bruce Arians might just have one great album left in them.