Carson Palmer is a quarterback, wrapped inside of a riddle, shrouded in enigma. So much hope, so much hype, and oh what an arm!
Now 2013 marks the third time a franchise has pinned its hopes on the cannon of the former USC quarterback. Arizona is hoping that Palmer will bring some of his big play ability to the desert and revitalize the career of All-Pro wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald.
To understand who Carson Palmer the player is or can be, you need to know who Carson Palmer was.
The Early Years
Drafted to put an end to a long line of ineptitude at Cincinnati's quarterback position, Palmer brought stability under center, as the Bengals had used seven different starting quarterbacks in the six seasons prior to Palmer's arrival.
The pieces were in place around Palmer, with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh playing wide receiver and Rudi Johnson anchoring the backfield. Johnson and Houshmandzadeh would combine with Palmer to be one of the most dynamic QB/WR sets in the NFL. Over Palmer's first four seasons, the duo would haul in 725 passes for a combined 9,673 yards and 65 touchdowns!
Johnson provided presence in the running game over that same span, grinding out a total of 4,708 yards and 39 more touchdowns.
Palmer's rookie season got off to a slow start, with the Bengals winning just one of their first five games, and that was behind the strength of a defensive score by Brian Simmons who returned an interception 50 yards. The Bengals' second win was against the Denver Broncos, and it showcased what Carson would be capable of as he connected with then Chad Johnson for a 50-yard touchdown to open the scoring. The Bengals would never trail in the game.
The Bengals would go 6-4 in their final ten games to break even at 8-8. Carson started 13 games his rookie year, going 6-7 and throwing 18 touchdowns, and the same number of interceptions. Palmer was the embodiment of his Bengals squad; raw but improving.
Expectations were high coming into 2005, but not many can say they foresaw Palmer raising up the Bengals' franchise as they improbably won their division with an 11-5 record in just his second season in the league, and his first as the full time starter.
Palmer was stellar that year, setting a career high for completion percentage (67.8) and touchdowns (32). It was the first winning season for Cincinnati in 17 years; players and fans alike rejoiced, as the gloom of the 1990s was swept aside, pulled down like the tattered drapery of the Havisham manor, to reveal the vibrant light of hope.
The Bengals had clinched the division via tiebreaker and were playing host to the hated Steelers. On Cincinnati's second play from scrimmage, Palmer took the snap and scanned down field. Checking down his receivers he saw Chris Henry about to get by his man. Palmer held the ball for a fraction of a second before hurling it down field into Henry's waiting grasp and a 66-yard gain.
Yet the Stadium was silent.
Behind the play, Palmer lay on the field, two knee ligaments torn by a low hit from Steelers nose tackle Kimo von Oellhoffen, who had fallen into Palmer's knees as he released the pass. Palmer's day was over almost before it began, and the Bengals would go on to lose 31-17, despite leading 17-7 in the second quarter. It was the high water mark for The Queen City with Carson Palmer.
Despite the severity of Palmer's knee injury he was ready for Week 1 of the 2006 season. Palmer missed no starts, and worked excruciatingly through his off-season rehab. He returned in September for what should have been his triumphant coronation as The Next Big Thing; instead it had turned into a rehab season, in which he played himself into shape and managed to get Cincinnati to an 8-8 record.
Many people questioned whether Palmer would ever be the same player his career had been projected for prior to the injury, despite the quarterback setting a career high for passing yards with 4,035. His scoring numbers dipped slightly to 28, but the 27-year-old had just thrown 60 touchdowns to 25 interceptions over the past two seasons.
Another year recovered from his gruesome knee injury, Palmer and the Bengals were poised for big things in 2007, but the football gods had other plans. Rudi Johnson went down to injury during the season and the rushing attack was led by Kenny Watson, who performed admirably, but ultimately it was not enough to balance out the Bengals' offensive attack. Houshmandzadeh and Johnson had their best seasons with Palmer. Housh connected for 112 passes for 1,143 yards and 12 scores, while Johnson added 93 catches and 8 touchdowns of his own to compliment his 1,440 receiving yards.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, that was pretty much all they got. The next most productive receiver had only 21 catches on the entire year, and the Bengals struggled to a 7-9 finish.
Palmer again showcased his myriad of talents by setting franchise records with 4,131 passing yards and 376 completions. Palmer also played one side of arguably the best quarterback duel that season, when the Bengals lost to Cleveland in week two, 51-45.
Palmer played lights out, finishing with 33 completions for 401 passing yards and a franchise record 6 touchdown passes. Derek Anderson, who quarterbacked the Browns that night threw five touchdowns of his own, marking just the third time in NFL history two quarterbacks have hit that milestone in the same game.
Going his Own Way
The 2008 season got off to a rough start for Carson Palmer and the Bengals, as the cats lost their first four games.
Following an overtime loss to the New York Giants, Palmer sat against the Browns with a sore elbow, but returned to face the Cowboys the next week.
The missed game ended a streak of 51 consecutive starts by Palmer, a streak he would have to wait to restart.
Following the Dallas game the soreness in Palmer's elbow was diagnosed as a torn ligament.
Palmer weighed his options, and while many people felt that having Tommy John Surgery was the best course of treatment, Palmer opted to let his ligaments heal naturally.
He missed the remainder of the season, and in the weeks leading up to the 2009 NFL Draft, Palmer proclaimed himself 100 percent.
Despite his proclamation, many of the questions that followed his knee injury in 2005 resurfaced, and again people wondered if Palmer could regain his form. His numbers appeared to bear out those concerns, as Palmer regressed to 3,094 yards and only 21 touchdowns. Houshmandzadeh had moved on to Seattle at this point, and Cedric Benson was beginning his run as the lead back in Cincinnati, and chipped in 1,251 yards on a 4.2 yards per carry average.
The season proved challenging for the quarterback and team alike, as wide receiver Chris Henry passed away heading into the Bengals game with San Diego. Despite losing the game on a last second field goal the team rallied to finish 10-6, and with a renewed sense of purpose and offensive balance, they headed into the postseason to play the New York Jets.
In his first complete postseason game, Palmer underwhelmed those faithful to the Orange and Black, completing just 50 percent of his passes in a 24-14 loss. Palmer's play seemed to confirm the worst fears in Cincinnati; He was not the same.
Coming into the 2010 season, the Bengals' front office did everything they could to add weapons around Palmer. The team brought in veteran wide receiver Terrell Owens, as well as drafting a trio of receivers, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Dezmon Briscoe.
Re-dedicating himself as a team leader, Palmer led Cinci to a 2-1 start and things looked up for the franchise. Benson would again rush for over 1100 yards, and the passing attack was more balanced and spread out, a change from the big play home-run days of Johnson and Houshmandzadeh.
Despite the promising start, the "Bungles" would resurface as the team lost 10 consecutive games at one point, and finished the season 4-12. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the Bengals' atrocious records, Palmer's number's went up in every category, completing 61.8 percent of his passes for 3,970 yards and 26 touchdowns; he also matched his career high of interceptions with 20.
Following the season, Carson Palmer and the team would have a falling out, with Palmer demanding a trade. His request was flatly denied by team president Mike Brown, Palmer informed the media and head coach Marvin Lewis he planned to retire.
Palmer cited the lack of success the he and the franchise had had in their seven seasons together. The Bengals attempted to call Palmer's bluff by drafting TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in 2011, and Palmer remained at home.
The Phone Always Rings Twice
The Bengals were having success as Carson Palmer enjoyed his early retirement. Following a 6-2 start the team had little need to worry about Palmer's contract status. Until the phone rang.
The 2011 Oakland Raiders were a franchise that had been in stalled in rebuilding mode for years prior to 2011. The Raiders had a revolving door at quarterback, featuring 11 different starters since the 2004 season.
Things were looking up as Jason Campbell had seemingly established himself as the Raiders' top passer. The Silver and Black were 4-2 and starting to look ahead when Campbell went down with a broken collar bone, and no viable replacement waiting in the wings.
Bengals president Mike Brown quickly worked out the pieces of a deal that would send Carson Palmer to Oakland for a package of draft picks, including the Raiders number one in 2012.
And Just like that Palmer was back in football. He started nine games for the Raiders that season, finishing with a 4-5 record, 2,753 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a team the Raiders finished 8-8 and just one game out of the playoffs.
Palmer again entered a season with lofty expectations upon him. The Raiders had one of the league's best young running backs in Darren McFadden, who was dynamic when he could stay on the field. The Oakland receiving corp, built in true Al Davis fashion was high on speed, low on just about everything else.
Wide receiver Denarius Moore and tight end Brandon Myers anchored a battery that was erratic at best. Injuries played a large role in preventing Palmer from developing a steady rhythm with anyone outside of Myers, who led the team with 79 catches for 806 yards.
Palmer, despite having a patchwork offense around him, managed to break the 4,000-yard barrier for the third time in his career, and added 22 scores to give him a career total of 189, which is good for a forty-third place tie on the all time list, with Philip Rivers.
By the end of the year Palmer was benched in favor of Ohio State product Terrelle Pryor. The Raiders finished 4-12 on the year, and 4-11 under Palmer for the season and 8-16 under the quarterback overall. Questions again began to arise, including one from the Arizona Cardinals that the Raiders hadn't been planning on.
Looking to the Future
If there is one thing the NFL is short on, it is originality.
I believe its part of the game's appeal, knowing that every year certain things will happen, a coach will meltdown, a cinderella will emerge, and a quarterback will be retreaded.
Enter the Arizona Cardinals.
Since Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals have used six different starting quarterbacks. IN THREE YEARS! Once again it was time for Carson Palmer to apply the brakes to a teams quarterback carousel.
Palmer's third stop in the NFL may prove to be his most successful.
Entering the 2013 season, he is healthy, and lines up with arguably the greatest receiver in the game today, Larry Fitzgerald, split wide. Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts flesh out a receiving corp that is the most dynamic and explosive that Palmer has had at his disposal since the heydey of Johnson&Housh.
Arizona brought in Bruce Arians this off season to lead the team, following his successful audition season as the interim coach in Indianapolis during Chuck Pagano's medical leave (Chuck Strong!). Arians' multi-layered downfield attack should allow Palmer the chance to reclaim his status as one of the league's elite quarterback. It is a label that has been eluding him since he came oh-so-close to reaching it in 2005.
And while this Arizona team has a defense that can compete with the most explosive of offenses, anchored by one of the strongest secondaries in the game, questions remain as to how successful the team can be Palmer.
While the passing numbers should be there, questions aplenty remain about running game. Rashard Mendenhall is the latest scrap heap back to be brought in by the Cardinals (Edgerrin James, Emmitt Smith, anyone?) and with his recent health concerns, as well as the durability questions surrounding Ryan Williams -- the Cardinals' backfield remains in a state of flux.
The stat that could have the most bearing on Palmer's success or failure in Arizona is an underlooked one.
In 2012 that Cardinals allowed a sack on 8.7 percent of their quarterback dropbacks. For Palmer's career, that number is 4.7 percent, with his highest single season number (6.5 percent) coming in '06 as he was recovering from his knee injury.
Palmer has shown toughness, but will break down under constant pressure. For both Palmer and the Cardinals to rise like a Phoenix in the desert, Arizona's line must hold.
So what can we tell about the future from the past? Well lets look at Palmer's career numbers by year:
All in all those are some pretty impressive numbers for a guy who has never won in the playoffs. But what do they say to us? One could look at the numbers form his first full season in each Cincinnati and Oakland, and derive that his year will look something like this:
Or one could take the four complete seasons in which Palmer was healthy (05, 07, 10, and 12) and come up with this line for 2013:
Pretty much anyway you crunch the numbers, Palmer's arrival in the desert should prove a boon to both the player and the team. As long as Palmer can stay healthy, both he and the Cardinals can rise like a Phoenix over Arizona.