Career season helps Cardinals QB Carson Palmer shed negative labels

TEMPE, Ariz. – Carson Palmer could have made it all stop.

The questions. The rage. The hate.

He could’ve put it all to rest by setting the record straight back in 2011 as to why he didn’t want to play for the Cincinnati Bengals anymore.

Despite the vitriol being spewed, Palmer didn’t feel the need to explain himself.

“He had every reason in the world to explain to America why he was leaving Cincinnati,” said Jordan Palmer, Carson’s brother. “And he was getting smashed.

“My family was like, ‘Why don’t you just explain it? Why don’t you just do one article? Just do ‘E:60’?’ And he’s like, ‘No.’ He’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter. I want to move forward.’ ”

Forbes magazine ranked Palmer among the 10 most hated NFL players in 2011, grouping him with Jay Cutler and Vince Young as a prima donna quarterback. Bengals fans were calling Palmer selfish and greedy for threatening to retire if he wasn’t traded.

Palmer heard it all; he said the comments were hard to avoid. But he didn’t budge. Asked earlier this season when he would share his side of the story, Palmer said when the time is right.

“I’m not going to get into a ‘he said-she said’ situation with [Bengals owner] Mike Brown,” Palmer said. “We obviously disagreed, and it ended in a very colorful, heated argument, and we disagree with each other. That’s how it ended, but now is not the time or place to get into a ‘what he said-what she said’ type of deal.”

Ignoring the questions, instead of answering them, has cost Palmer.

He has been labeled a “journeyman” despite playing for just three teams in 13 years, a “stop-gap quarterback” despite being a starter for Cincinnati, Oakland and Arizona, and “injury prone” despite missing just 10 games due to injury -- all in 2014 -- since 2008. Before this season, Palmer was routinely left out of conversations about the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Was it because of the teams he has played for or because he hasn’t won a playoff game? It may be a little more complicated.

Palmer has been considered a legitimate MVP candidate twice: in 2005 and again this season, when his career-high numbers complemented the Cardinals’ 13-3 record.

“He’s one of the toughest, both mentally and physically, quarterbacks that I have ever been around,” said Al Saunders, who was the Raiders' offensive coordinator in 2011 and senior offensive assistant in 2012 when Palmer was in Oakland. “And I have had the good fortune to be around Dan Fouts and Joe Montana and Kurt Warner, and players like that. And Carson is emotionally and mentally and physically equal to all those guys.”

Palmer has finally landed in a place that has both re-energized and re-established him. He has gone 29-9 as the Cardinals’ starter. He has had the best season of his career a year after tearing his ACL for the second time in the NFL. He has thrown for a career-high 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns this year.

And during this season, Palmer, who turned 36 in December, started to shed the labels that have been attached to his name since 2011.

“I don’t think it’s complete yet,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “But he’s on his way to do that. I think he is on his way to doing that, and it will be a very nice thing to watch because he more than deserves it.”

When the Bengals drafted Palmer in 2003, Jon Kitna knew what everyone else knew. Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick, had just won the Heisman Trophy and was the epitome of a quarterback: tall, strong-armed, handsome. Palmer added insult to injury with his surfer hair and a Southern California vibe.

“When God made Carson, he stamped him: quarterback,” said Kitna, who replaced Palmer as the Bengals starter. “If you were making a prototype NFL quarterback, that’s, to me, who you would pick.

“He’s got everything in my opinion.”

To which Kitna added: “He had every reason not to be humble.”

But the stereotype didn’t fit Palmer. Actually, none of the typical quarterback stereotypes fit Palmer -- then or now.

“What didn’t I expect to learn?” Kitna asked. “I think that would be just how humble he is. How unassuming. How much he’s about everybody else and not himself. Like, he’s truly like that.”

Palmer has made a career out of surprising people.

“I did not know how much of a gym rat he was and how hard he studies the game and how much time he puts in,” Arians said. “I’ve been very, very pleased with that.”

That side of Palmer -- the one who uses a virtual-reality headset at home to rewatch practice and works out with linemen on the side -- hasn’t been advertised.

Cardinals backup quarterback Drew Stanton, who has played nine seasons in the NFL and was teammates with the Detroit LionsMatthew Stafford and Indianapolis ColtsAndrew Luck, said he has never seen anyone work as hard as Palmer “as far as physical preparation and pushing himself.” Arians, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator, knew Palmer as the Bengals quarterback who’d “drop dimes in the buckets to Chris Henry and a few other guys.”

Before he traded for him, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim’s opinion of Palmer had been clouded by the quarterback's reputation.

“You have a perception,” Keim said. “Here’s a guy who was in Cincinnati, sat out a year because he was determined to ... whatever the reason was. So, I think there was a perception around the NFL about him.

“I didn’t know that he was the type of natural leader that he is. I didn’t know that he had this kind of mental and physical toughness that I see in him. And I didn’t know that he had the drive to win that I see now.”

Palmer’s public persona doesn’t reflect a workaholic who is two wins away from his first Super Bowl. He’s the definition of California cool. He has a dry sense of humor that comes across at unexpected times.

“He’s so unassuming,” Kitna said. “But you get him behind closed doors and there’s this passion and this fire that’s in him. He doesn’t just want to beat people; he wants to rip their heart out of them, like he wants them to feel totally deflated and defeated.”

When current Cardinals tight end and former Bengals teammate Jermaine Gresham was drafted out of Oklahoma in 2010, he knew about Palmer’s numbers. But when Gresham started playing with Palmer, he learned that there was more to Palmer than just a strong arm. Palmer set a standard.

“You better do s--- right or he’s going to rip you a new one,” Gresham said. “So I learned how to be a professional through that. Being with him that first year taught me to be a professional.”

Those who know Palmer best gush about two things: his humor and his dedication to family.

Frostee Rucker has known Palmer since their prep days in Southern California. They were also teammates in college for a year, in Cincinnati for five years and then in Arizona for the past three.

Rucker says Palmer has stayed consistent with his play and personality.

“The guy has probably over $100 million, but you couldn’t tell by the way he dresses, the cars he has,” Rucker said. “He’s personable. Anyone can go to him in the locker room and talk to him. He doesn’t have his own office here.

“He’s normal. Money changes a lot of people, believe it or not. It does. You can just see how people’s fashion changes when they get a new contract, the new cars in the parking lot. But that’s not him. He doesn’t need that stuff.”

Two days after the Cardinals signed Palmer to a three-year extension worth $50 million, Palmer stepped up in the pocket against the St. Louis Rams. His left knee buckled on the University of Phoenix Stadium grass.

He had torn the ACL in his left knee. His 2014 season was over.

“I was sick,” Keim said. “I had a knot in my stomach like I’ve never had before because we put so much time and effort into doing that contract. I think both parties were so excited about the deal.”

The next morning, Keim walked downstairs to the training room in the Cardinals’ practice facility and put his arm around Palmer. Keim’s message: “Hang in there. We still believe in you, and you’re our guy.”

“I just told him, ‘I know you’ll be back; better than ever,” Keim said.

“Now, did I know that he would look this good? I’d be lying if I said I did.”

Palmer spent the offseason putting in seven-hour days with the Cardinals trainers and physical therapist Brett Fischer. Within three months, Keim was watching videos of Palmer doing quarterback drills, which was unusually quick. Once the videos started coming in, Keim said he had to “temper” his enthusiasm.

“But at the same time when you know the player and what internally drives him, I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to be back and better than ever,” Keim said.

Palmer not only completed the best season of his career, he’s made the Cardinals the statistical favorite to win Super Bowl 50.

The first step is Saturday, when the Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round. Palmer will fill a major void in his resume if they beat the Packers: the elusive playoff win. Two wins and he’ll silence critics who point to his lack of playoff success as the reason he’s not an elite quarterback. Three wins and Palmer secures his place among the NFL’s elite.

This is the type of season expected out of a former No. 1 overall pick and Heisman winner. It just took Palmer 13 years to get there.

“It’s an incredible year,” said Pete Carroll, the current Seattle Seahawks coach who coached Palmer at USC. “This is the year that he’s been waiting for. He’s had plenty of good years, but to play on a really good team that’s winning all areas, it’s a great culmination for a lot of years when he’s had to battle and hasn’t been able to get over the hump on it.

“I’m thrilled for him. I’ve been a real champion of Carson for a long time and always trusted his ability and his focus and his competitiveness. Now he gets to see the benefits of it with a really good team. It’s awesome for him and his career.”

Sometimes it takes a while for all the right pieces to fall into place.

When Palmer suffered a knee injury in 2005, the Bengals were poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Last season, Arizona was in position to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed when he tore his ACL again.

Now, Palmer is happy. He’s in the right system with the right coaches on the right team. He’s the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ offense, but he doesn’t feel that way, Jordan Palmer said.

“I don’t think he feels like he’s the best player on the team and that he has to throw for 400 yards every week to win,” Jordan said. “That’s really freeing when you have felt that way in the past and you don’t feel that way anymore.”

Little by little, win by win, Palmer is shedding the perceptions -- or misperceptions -- that have been piled on. There’s just one way for Palmer to completely shed those perceptions.

“Win in the playoffs,” Arians said.