Kurt Warner was 31 years old, just as Carson Palmer is now, when he started to see what appeared to be the end of the road. The Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL MVP rose to the top with the St. Louis Rams in one of the more improbable success stories in league history in 1999, but by 2002 (when he turned 31), things were starting to go wrong. Injuries, and the rise of backup Marc Bulger, made Warner expendable in St. Louis by the end of the 2003 season. Picked up by the New York Giants for one season and cast aside for a second time, Warner wound up with the Arizona Cardinals and made another amazing comeback, nearly leading the Cards to a Super Bowl victory.
So, this is a guy who clearly understands that NFL quarterbacks can have second acts. Asked about Palmer's future following the trade to the Oakland Raiders that will cost Hue Jackson's team at least one first-round pick, Warner said that we shouldn't be so quick to slam the trade simply based on Palmer's recent efforts. Palmer actually rebounded from two rough seasons in 2008 and 2009 to put up fairly decent numbers in 2010, though the game tape didn't always jibe with the stats. Palmer's insistence that he would rather retire than ever play for the Cincinnati Bengals again certainly added to the potential risk for some.
"I think initially I was a little surprised," Warner told the NFL Network on Tuesday. "I didn't think Carson would be playing football this year, but I like the move on both sides. If you can get that Carson Palmer that we've seen in the past — the guy that has the big arm that can make the throws down the field, that can manage the game — you couple that with the defense and especially that running game, I think this might make the Raiders a better football team if we get that Carson Palmer. So I think this was a great move for both sides. I think both sides ultimately will benefit from this."
Whether the Raiders will benefit in the long term is another story — they lose their 2012 first-rounder in the deal, and if the Raiders win a playoff game as a result of Palmer's efforts, the conditional language of the deal takes away Oakland's first-round pick in 2013 as well. So, it's very much a "this had better work" sort of move — especially for a Raiders team that's currently 4-2 and in second place in the AFC West.
"That is definitely a lot to pay," Warner said. "But this is an organization that feels like they're close. They feel like they can make some noise this year. They've got a young football team that can build for the future, and if you can get a guy like Carson Palmer, a guy that's been a top-10 quarterback in this league for quite awhile, that helps this football team and that changes the complexion of how people have looked at them. Up to this point, it was they have a great running game, solid defense but I'm not sure they can make some noise against the big boys.
"You get Carson Palmer and you get him back to form, definitely you start to look at this team and there are two sides to the coin on offense. They can bring a lot to the table. It is a lot to give up there is no question, especially with the questions on will we get the Carson we've come to know, but if that does pan out, I think this makes this team a definite contender."
Despite Palmer's familiarity with Raiders head coach Hue Jackson from Jackson's three-year stint as the Bengals' wide receivers coach from 2004 through 2006, Warner cautioned that the transition will take a while — it does for any quarterback on a new team, no matter how experienced or talented.
"I think it can definitely be difficult. I don't think very many people have been through this; I know I haven't been through a situation like this so I can't speak from expertise," Warner said of Palmers transition from working out to being back in the NFL for the first time since the end of the 2010 season. "But [going from] going out on a field and running, or going out on a field and throwing routes to air, is completely different than the speed of the NFL.
"But I do have some experience. I was playing with the Cardinals a number of years back and the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers went down, and they brought in Vinny Testaverde in the middle of the week. He started against us on Sunday and actually led them to a victory. I know Carson is in shape, I know he's ready to go. I think they can facilitate an offense if they want to put him out this next week where they don't ask him to do too much — they depend a lot on that running game — but I think it can work. If they decide to sit him for a week and then use the bye week, I definitely think he can be up to speed and ready to go a couple of weeks from now."
The Raiders take on the Kansas City Chiefs at home this Sunday, and then they have their bye week, so the timing is good from that perspective. If everything works out, just how far does Warner see this Raiders team going?
"I definitely thought this team up to this point was a team that could get into the playoffs," he said. "I didn't necessarily think that they were a contender, a lot because as much as I like Jason Campbell I didn't think that he was a guy that could carry them if they're running game didn't work out.
"But I look at Carson Palmer, and again, there are a lot of questions here, but if he gets back to form and he can be that guy that can win games for you, I think that changes the complexion on how people look at the Raiders. I think then with their young talent at wide receiver and the speed they have there with the great running game they have, they become a team that is a little more scary than they were just a couple of weeks ago."
And as Warner knows better than just about anyone, sometimes all that is needed for a team to take the final step is that little extra special something at the quarterback position. Whether Palmer can have a second act anywhere near Warner's is the question that will decide the worth of the trade — and the future of the Oakland Raiders.