TEMPE, Ariz. -- The memory is fragile.
It holds the keys to our lives, what propels us to go on, to take another step, to progress another day. For some, it’s gone too soon. For others, it doesn’t fade, staying as crisp and clear as the original moment.
But, at 33, his memory isn’t failing him, at least not yet. He forgets on purpose. It’s a mechanism Palmer has used since high school as a way to not get bogged down by errant throws, poor decisions and untimely interceptions. He’s trained himself to forget the bad plays as soon as they’re over with and move on to the next.
“That’s what separates you as you go on -- the ability to focus and ability to have your mind in the right place and move on to the next play,” Palmer said. “You either learn it and you continue play, or you don’t and you struggle and you don’t play anymore.”
He’s had to forget more this season than any in his 10-year career. Despite being 133 yards away from his fourth 4,000-yard season, Palmer has thrown a career-high 21 interceptions -- and he still has one game left. Some of the inaccuracy issues stem from learning a fourth offensive scheme in as many years, with the intellect of this one could running circles around the last three.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians installed his highly complex scheme -- that has won Super Bowls and made a few good quarterbacks great -- and Palmer and the rest of the offense struggled to absorb it. He threw 13 interceptions in his first eight games, with as many being his fault as others because of bad alignment and poor route running. But Palmer has thrown just eight in the last seven games -- four of which came Sunday in a win at Seattle --during which Arizona has gone 7-1. And Palmer was interception-free in four of his last six games.
Palmer has looked like a different quarterback during the second half of the season, one with veteran savvy who still has the big arm at times and can still orchestrate an offense to wins. But he didn’t always look like that guy. When Palmer was traded for a seventh-round pick in April, the jury was fairly unanimous: Arizona acquired a washed-up quarterback. But that same washed-up quarterback still threw for more than 4,000 yards with the Oakland Raiders in 2012.
“I think that might even been a bigger accomplishment,” all-pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said jokingly. “He was throwing it to himself a lot of times.”
Yet, that was the perception. In Oakland, Palmer didn’t have nearly the same talent level at receiver he has in Arizona but he was still able to put the situation behind him and air it out.
Recently, Arians said Palmer has the same memory as a cornerback, a position well known for quickly forgetting bad plays and moving on to the next one. He’s never seen a quarterback do that before.
“First one that I’ve been around that can erase it that fast,” Arians said. “Others let it linger too long. I’ve been around guys that couldn’t shake it off. They just couldn’t go to the next play and they kept thinking about it and another bad one would happen, and snow ball effect, but he’s as good as I’ve been around as far as being resilient and going onto the next series.”
Some say Palmer is “California Cool” but it’s not to be mistaken for laziness or an apathetic attitude.
Palmer’s career has been defined by his even-keeled demeanor and his ability to hold his ground while weathering less-than-ideal situations.
And his work ethic.
He’s among the first at the practice facility every day and among the last to leave, Fitzgerald said.
Defensive end Frostee Rucker, who’s known Palmer since their high school days in southern California and has been teammates with Palmer at USC and Cincinnati before Arizona, called Palmer a “complete professional.” While some teammates are lighthearted on team flights and others are watching movies, Palmer is watching game film on his iPad, Rucker said.
“It matters to him,” Fitzgerald said. “He wants to be great. He wants the pressure on his shoulders and he has that look in the huddle every Sunday -- that who’s with me look? Who’s going to ride with me today? And to have that kind of leadership at that position means a lot to us.”
Rucker has known him a long time and has never seen Palmer be a “rah-rah” quarterback. He’ll let the positive emotion of a game get the better of him after a big play, but he doesn’t get down, especially during the week. He’s steady and leads his charges by example, something that hasn’t been seen around the Cardinals since Kurt Warner.
“Because [when] it gets rough out there, they point the finger at the head dog,” Rucker said. “He’s never once in his whole career pointed the finger at anyone.
“He’s never once gave any reason why it didn’t work but [to say] we need to do better.”
Palmer’s last four years haven’t been the type usually associated with former first-overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner. His departure from the Bengals was tenuous and it eventually landed him in Oakland for a season-and-a-half. Before 2013, Palmer had won 12 games total in his last three years.
This season, he has Arizona on the brink of tying the franchise record of 11 wins and has them playing meaningful games in December for the first time since 2009. But despite everything he’s accomplished and replanting himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, this season won’t be satisfying unless the Cardinals play a game in January.
Palmer’s not used to this type of success. He’s won at least 10 games just twice before, in 2005 and 2009, but nothing’s changed. He’s still making the same throws he’s made throughout his career. They’re just to a better group of players around them.
“He’d make every throw in the book last year,” Arians said. “It was just a situation that was … he was in a bad one but when you turned the tape on, there wasn’t a throw he couldn’t make.”
In a matter of 16 games, he’s gone from making interceptions the norm to the exception. If Palmer keeps up his current pace, 4,000-yard seasons will start becoming expected as he enters his mid-30s.
“I think it will mean something later when you think about things like that,” Palmer said. “Statistics don’t matter right now. Getting a win, and like I said, sending them into the playoffs with a loss, is what matters.”
He won’t forget that.