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When the Oakland Raiders asked Carson Palmer to take a $3 million pay cut earlier this month, his decision seemed like a no-brainer.
By proposing that the 33-year-old quarterback take a relatively modest reduction from his $13 million base salary, rather than a drastic cut, the Raiders were essentially affirming their faith in Palmer's abilities. And given that it's highly unlikely Palmer could command anywhere close to $10 million annually on the open market, staying seemed like the obvious play.
Yet Palmer, Y! Sports has learned and other media outlets have reported, balked at the Raiders' request, a move that could lead to his outright release. The quarterback's decision, according to three sources familiar with Palmer's mindset, is based on a sense that Oakland's prospects for success in 2013 are so bleak that money is no longer the predominant factor in his thought process.
Palmer's rejection of the Raiders' proposal could lead him to the Arizona Cardinals, who are in the market for a starting quarterback, or possibly put him on the path to becoming a backup for a contending team. Oakland, meanwhile, may respond to the player's hardened stance by trading for Seattle Seahawks backup Matt Flynn or selecting West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith with the third overall pick in the draft.
Whereas Palmer's return to the Raiders seemed like a given just a few weeks ago, there's an increasing sense both inside the organization and in Palmer's camp that a divorce is imminent.
"Carson isn't 28, and he doesn't know how much time he has left," one source close to Palmer said Wednesday. "Does he want to be with a team that is clearly rebuilding and looks like it's a long way away from contending, where he doesn't have a whole lot around him?
"He's gotten to play a lot in his career, but he hasn't gotten to experience a lot of winning. At this point, I think being somewhere where they have a chance to win is the most important thing."
Whether Palmer, who did not return messages seeking comment, has a chance to do that in a starting capacity remains to be seen.
If the Raiders, who have yet to issue Palmer an ultimatum, decide to cut him rather than retain him at his current pay grade, the Cardinals are his most logical suitor. New Arizona coach Bruce Arians has long favored sturdy, strong-armed pocket passers, and Palmer absolutely fits the profile.
That said, the Cardinals are exploring numerous options at the position. Earlier this month Arizona signed free agent Drew Stanton, a backup last season for the Indianapolis Colts, where Arians was the offensive coordinator and interim head coach. Arians has since stated publicly that he is comfortable going into the season with Stanton as his presumptive starter.
The Cardinals are also likely to draft a quarterback in the first or second rounds. General manager Steve Keim attended North Carolina State's pro day Tuesday and was impressed by the performance of former Wolfpack passer Mike Glennon. The team also had a presence at USC's pro day Wednesday, where ex-Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley put his skills on display.
A team source said Arizona has yet to do a thorough evaluation on Palmer, who threw for 4,018 yards in 15 games last season. If the Cardinals do pursue him, they would almost certainly offer him far less than $10 million a season.
It's also unclear how motivated Palmer would be by the prospect of playing for NFC West cellar dweller Arizona, which is staring up at the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in what is arguably football's toughest division. In fact, joining a team like the 49ers or Seahawks might make sense if Palmer were to be content with a backup role. Should Palmer, a Southern California native, be amenable to leaving the West Coast, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be another viable option to pursue as a second-stringer.
One thing is obvious: Palmer is less than enthused with the idea of returning to Oakland, where salary-cap issues, a dearth of draft choices (a problem exacerbated, in fairness, by the 2011 trade that brought Palmer to the Raiders) and a recent rash of cuts and free-agent defections have created a sense of pessimism about the team's 2013 prospects.
The Raiders, who went 4-12 last season, have said goodbye to productive players such as linebacker Philip Wheeler (who signed with the Miami Dolphins at the start of free agency), safety Michael Huff (who signed with the Baltimore Ravens Wednesday) and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (released Wednesday). Meanwhile, wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey and defensive lineman Richard Seymour are among those likely to sign elsewhere in the coming weeks.
"At this point," said one of the sources familiar with Palmer's thinking, "he's got to be wondering, 'What have I signed up for?' And, 'Do I have a fighting chance?' "
General manager Reggie McKenzie – hired by owner Mark Davis to reshape the franchise three months after the 2011 death of his legendary father, Al – has done little to convince Palmer that immediate improvement is on the horizon. Though Palmer is pleased with the presence of new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who he helped recruit following the firing of predecessor Greg Knapp, the quarterback suspects he is set up for failure.
"The fans hate the trade and take it out on him," said one of the sources. "He's probably thinking that he'll get his ass kicked, physically and mentally."
As Oakland heads into coach Dennis Allen's second season, Palmer isn't the only one unimpressed by the team's direction. A document comparing the Raiders' rebuilding efforts to those of the Indianapolis Colts — one originating from a frustrated employee inside the team's Alameda training facility, and obtained by Y! Sports — did not reflect favorably upon McKenzie and Allen.
Among the cited similarities between the two organizations heading into the 2012 season: Each team hired a first-time general manager and a first-time head coach who had previously been a defensive coordinator. Each had to contend with severe salary-cap issues and more "dead money" than any of their other NFL counterparts. Both started quarterbacks picked first overall (Oakland's Palmer in 2003, Indy's Andrew Luck in 2012) who were learning a new offensive system. And both replaced their starting cornerbacks and center from the previous season, lacked a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 and featured rosters devoid of any of their first-round selections from the 2004-08 drafts.
Whereas the Colts, with Arians filling in for the ailing Chuck Pagano for much of the season, rebounded from a 2-14 campaign in 2011 to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs, Oakland lost 12 games after having gone 8-8 the previous year.
McKenzie's dubious moves in 2012 included signing guard Mike Briesel to a five-year, $25-million contract in free agency (he has since accepted a pay cut following a disappointing season), acquiring a quartet of since-released vested veterans (Dave Tollefson, Owen Schmitt, Ron Bartell and Pat Lee) and restructuring Seymour's deal in a manner that will cause the team to take a $14 million cap hit in 2013.
After trading for Palmer, who stepped away from the game following the 2010 season because he no longer wanted to play for the Cincinnati Bengals, the Raiders asked him to restructure his existing contract, and he complied. McKenzie initiated another restructuring following the 2011 season, and again the quarterback was receptive.
This time, however, Palmer resisted the team's pitch for cap relief. The fact that McKenzie told Sirius/XM NFL radio in January that third-year backup Terrelle Pryor would have a chance to compete for the starting job in 2013 likely didn't increase Palmer's enthusiasm for accepting a pay cut.
One of the sources close to Palmer said the quarterback's refusal to accept the $10 million salary is not a leverage play. "It's not like he's trying to get another few hundred thousand [dollars] out of the Raiders," the source said. "That's not what this is about."
Unless Palmer has a change of heart, the Raiders will have to decide whether to pay him the $13 million or move on without him. For now, the staredown continues, with no resolution in sight. There are no roster bonuses or other pending payments due to Palmer that would trigger any sort of deadline, and the team has not yet threatened to release him should he decline to accept the pay cut.
On Wednesday, the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Raiders were "willing" to retain Palmer for his full salary in 2013 "right now" — though the situation is obviously fluid.
Despite McKenzie's public support for Pryor, who started Oakland's final game of 2012 (completing 13 of 28 passes for 150 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, and running nine times for 49 yards and a TD), there is much organizational skepticism about the former Ohio State standout.
That said, Pryor's mobility presents the Raiders with an intriguing scenario should Palmer be released: The team could draft Smith and sign a third quarterback with running skills (possibly ex-Tennessee Titans starter Vince Young) to create an entire depth chart of players suited to running a read-option attack.
Another possibility would be trading for Flynn, an expensive free-agent signee for the Seahawks in 2012 who was beaten out by rookie Russell Wilson in training camp. McKenzie previously worked as a personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers, where Flynn spent the first four years of his career as Aaron Rodgers' backup.
A league source said the Raiders have legitimate interest in acquiring Flynn, who could likely be pried from Seattle for as little as a fourth-round pick. (Another source said the Jacksonville Jaguars, who according to a CBSSports.com report are also interested in Flynn, have little inclination to try to swing a trade.)
However, with Flynn carrying a cap number of $7.25 million for 2013, acquiring him would still pose financial problems for the Raiders, as Palmer would count another $9.34 million against this year's cap were he to be released.
Convincing the incumbent starter to return for $10 million would seem to be a far less messy option for McKenzie. At this point, however, Palmer appears to want to make a clean break from the Raiders, even if doing so is not in his best financial interests.
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