TEMPE, Ariz. – Carson Palmer didn't see the safety coming, zipping a pass into the right flat that was destined to end up in the wrong man's hands toward the end of a two-minute drill. The accompanying rebuke from Bruce Arians, the Arizona Cardinals' first-year coach? That was easy to read.
"We can't have that," Arians growled after an errant Palmer throw during organized team activities (OTAs) earlier this week, accentuating his sentiment with a couple of choice expletives. Palmer, the Cards' newly acquired starting quarterback, nodded dutifully and kept smiling on the inside.
It's only May, but Palmer is thrilled with his third and perhaps final incarnation as a presumptive franchise quarterback, and nothing is going to stomp on his buzz. Seven weeks after the Oakland Raiders shipped the 33-year-old passer to the desert for a pair of late-round draft picks, the NFL's version of CP3 begins each workday with the giddy excitement of a kid rushing to the tree on Christmas morning.
"I love the head coach," Palmer said of Arians, a longtime offensive assistant who stunningly earned coach of the year honors after an impressive fill-in stint for the ailing Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis last season. "I mean, I love the head coach. He keeps it real. He already has this team wrapped around his finger. And we have some talented players in this locker room."
Gesturing toward the perfectly groomed practice fields at the Cardinals' training facility following Tuesday's OTA session, Palmer added, "Look at this grass. You could eat off the grass here. It's a great place to be.
"When you like the coach and the guys in the locker room, and you know you can still play at a high level, and you feel like you can help take a team to a Super Bowl, and you know you're job's not gonna be as hard as it may have been before – it's just fun. It's been very fun since I've been here. And nobody thinks OTAs are fun."
If Palmer was experiencing a veteran's version of Christmas in May – on a day when the temperature would reach triple digits, no less – it's a nice change from what he endured last December, in a game that would be his last in a silver-and-black uniform.
Late in the first quarter of the Raiders' 17-6 road defeat to the Carolina Panthers, their second-to-last game of a miserable season, Palmer took a hard hit to the back from defensive end Greg Hardy, who was flagged for roughing the passer. The pain forced the quarterback to the locker room, where he requested an injection and waited for the agony to subside. It didn't, and Palmer ended up in a Charlotte-area hospital with a disconcerting diagnosis: four broken ribs, a punctured lung and the prospect of missing out on a festive holiday with his wife, Shaelyn, and their three children under the age of five.
"Normally when you get shot up, the pain goes away – but it just wasn't going away and I couldn't breathe," Palmer recalls. "And I knew something was up. So then I got to the hospital, and they told me, 'You have a punctured lung, so you can't get on a flight for five days.' I was like, 'Dude, I'm not gonna miss Christmas. I've got [twins] who are four; Christmas is amazing right now.'
"So, they punctured a hole into my chest and stuck a tube in my lung [allowing the air between his lung and ribcage to escape] so I could get on the flight. And when they were doing that, with the tube sucking all the blood and air into a little box, I remember laying there and thinking, 'Yeah, I'm probably not gonna play next week.' And then I started thinking, 'Who knows what's gonna happen here next year?'"
The rebuilding Raiders, it turned out, were prepared to move on without Palmer, the man for whom the organization had swung a still-reviled trade in October of 2011. After the Raiders asked him to take a pay cut that included no guaranteed money for 2013, Palmer balked, which led Oakland to trade for former Seattle Seahawks backup Matt Flynn and deal Palmer to the quarterback-needy Cards.
When Palmer was told of Arizona's interest by his agent, Dave Dunn, his two-word reaction was, "I'm in."
If Palmer has embraced his new surroundings with enthusiasm, the feeling is decidedly mutual. After enduring a post-Kurt Warner wasteland at the sport's most important position, a desultory three-season montage of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Derek Anderson and Max Hall, et al., the Cardinals once again have hope.
"That's my guy," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett says of Palmer. "He's the [expletive] best teammate ever."
Adds star wideout Larry Fitzgerald: "He is a wonderful teammate. He's a hard worker. We will get after it, and I'm excited about it. It's been great getting to know him, and him getting to know us. He has been stabilizing for us thus far, and that feels great. I know [the rest of our] teammates concur."
Steve Keim, promoted to general manager after Rod Graves was fired at the end of the 2012 season, says Palmer's presence on the practice field "has a lot of people excited. He just looks like a big-time quarterback, and he's not a prima donna. The guy works."
It's a good thing, because Arians is a stickler for detail who expects Palmer to master his third unfamiliar offensive system in 19 months in relatively short order. And Arians, who has earned his quarterback-guru reputation via his past tutelage of future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger and last year's impressive unveiling of No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck, is about as subtle and filtered as the mid-day Tempe sun.
When Palmer makes the wrong read, mishandles a snap or butchers a play call, his new coach will inevitably voice his displeasure.
"He's always honest," Palmer says. "It doesn't matter if it's Larry [Fitzgerald], myself or a seventh-round backup long snapper. He's in everybody's stuff. He's not a coddler And you just can't help but respect him. There's no ego whatsoever. And he's a guy who's got Super Bowl rings."
Given that Palmer has yet to earn his first playoff victory, coming up short in first-round games for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2005 and '09, he's more than willing to let Arians guide him down the path of postseason salvation. Arians became a fan of the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick during his eight-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the infamous '05 playoff clash between AFC North rivals in which Palmer suffered a severe knee injury while completing a 66-yard pass on the Bengals' first drive.
"Just playing against him for all those years, I knew he was tough," Arians says. "The injury was unfortunate – I don't know if we'd have beat him had he played that whole game, and we went on to win the Super Bowl. He's as pretty a deep-ball thrower as I've ever seen, and he has a way of making a rapport with his receivers.
"[The last two years] he handled a situation very similar to the one I had [last year] in Indianapolis, with injuries and death and all the crazy things that happened in Oakland. When he became available, I thought he was the perfect fit for us."
Arians, who's getting his first head-coaching shot at age 60, recently compared himself and Palmer to a pair of characters in an "old cowboy movie," riding "off in the sunset together."
On Tuesday, Arians repeated the analogy, adding, "I'll be Tonto. He's the Lone Ranger."
In recent years Palmer has been the guy dodging metaphorical bullets and arrows. Following a frustrating 2010 campaign, he decided he was done in Cincinnati, telling Bengals owner Mike Brown he would retire rather than return to the team.
Unwilling to allow Palmer to force his way to another team, Brown called the quarterback's bluff and drafted Andy Dalton as his successor. Palmer retired, but now concedes that in his heart, "I knew I wasn't done. I didn't know what was gonna happen, but I just felt like I was gonna play again."
What happened was a perfect storm that occurred when Oakland, shortly after the death of iconic owner Al Davis – and just before the NFL trading deadline – lost quarterback Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone. With coach Hue Jackson, a former Bengals assistant, lobbying hard to acquire Palmer, the desperate Raiders met Brown's steep asking price, surrendering first- and second-round draft picks.
Though Palmer played reasonably well during his time in Oakland, it was marked by upheaval, with Jackson getting fired after an 8-8 season in 2011 and Dennis Allen arriving as his rookie replacement. Allen, in turn, hired offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, whose zone-blocking scheme contributed to the sudden ineffectiveness of prolific halfback Darren McFadden.
Beginning with a season-opening, 22-14 defeat to the San Diego Chargers last September in which an injury to the team's starting long-snapper and the ineffectiveness of his stand-in led to three botched punts, Oakland endured a trying, 4-12 campaign that put its veteran quarterback in a tough spot.
"It was a long year for a lot of us, and we knew it was gonna be a fight, week in, week out, to get one win," Palmer says. "It wasn't gonna be where we'd just show up and steamroll anybody.
"You don't plan for your snapper to go down in Week 1. … Does that happen, ever? We were in the game, in the game, and then, boom, all of a sudden, the game was over, because we had like three blocked punts in a row. That kind of set the tone for the year. I knew it was a grind."
Palmer put up impressive numbers under the circumstances, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 4,018 yards, with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He still speaks glowingly of all things Oakland, from the Raiders' rabid fans, to his ex-teammates, to Allen, to new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who replaced the fired Knapp at season's end. "Olson's awesome," Palmer says. "My brother [Jordan] played for him [in Jacksonville]. Aside from the guys, that was one of the main reasons I was hoping I'd be back, to play for him."
With the salary-cap-strapped Raiders in the midst of a dramatic overhaul, however, Palmer felt moving on was the best option.
Says Palmer: "[The Raiders offered a restructured] contract that said, 'Look, we're going in a different direction. If you want to come and be a part of this for a year, maybe not be a part of it …' There was nothing [binding] in it. And I understood.
"I told [Allen] from the get-go, 'Look, I understand how this business works. Just let me know, I've got a family.' And they were very honest and up front and basically said, 'We're headed in a different direction and we're at a point in this organization's life that this is the direction we're going.' I've been in this business long enough, and I totally get what they're doing. I really think it's gonna work out for them. I hope that it does."
In Palmer's mind, things couldn't be working out any better on his end.
"I really do like everything about this situation," he says. "We play in a tough division, but I think that's a good thing. From my time in the AFC North, going up against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, I know that it hardens you. Whoever wins the NFC West is gonna be playing for the NFC."
The fact that most people rank the Cardinals below the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams, in Palmer's eyes, is "kind of perfect. You know, you don't want to be, 'Oh, that team's gonna win the division.' You're set up, you've got a target on your back from Week 1. I kind of like laying in the weeds and sneaking up on people, and before you know it … 'What's their record? Where are they in the division?' I like that positioning."
Two years after his aborted retirement, and two trades removed from his former life as the face of the Bengals' franchise, Palmer believes he can find prolonged happiness in the Valley of the Sun.
"Now that I'm here, I don't look in the past at all," he says. "I'm excited about the future here, and I don't know how long I'm gonna be here, but I hope I'm here for as long as I wanna be here, you know? I don't want to get cut; I want to call it a career when I feel like it's time to move on. And I feel like I've got good years ahead of me."
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