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The Undoing of a Can’t-Miss Kid

Carson Palmer was destined for stardom coming out of USC, but luck, timing, and injuries were never on his side

In the New Bill James Historical Abstract, every decade has a player listed with the title of “Can I Try This Career Over?” In each case, it’s a player who had a career that didn’t remotely compare to his level of talent for a number of reasons that were entirely out of his control. He ended up in the wrong organization at the wrong time and got stuck behind the wrong player. He suffered injuries at the exact moment when he would have gotten steady playing time. He wasted his career on the bench in the middle of nowhere and eventually revealed how good he was later on in his career.

When I was watching the Cardinals-Seahawks game last night, I kept thinking about that in relation to Carson Palmer. As he scuffled behind an offensive line that seemed to be offering the Seahawks bottle service as they let them through, I really started to wonder: Has anybody been in the wrong place at the wrong time more frequently than Palmer? I don’t really blame Palmer for how he has performed, and I don’t pity him — inasmuch as I could ever pity a tall, perma-tanned USC quarterback — but I also can’t imagine that Palmer ever thought it would have ended up this way when he entered the 2003 draft. There was a superstar here once, and now there’s the guy who had his receivers coming over the top to tip away would-be interceptions. Every athlete has to go through that decline, but there’s a huge chunk of Palmer’s career missing that he’ll never get back. If anyone deserves another chance to redo his career, it’s Palmer.

Put Palmer’s career in perspective and you’ll see what I mean. It seems impossible to think this way about him today, but when Palmer finished up his run at USC with a Heisman Trophy victory and entered the 2003 NFL draft, he was considered to possibly be the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. His Sports Illustrated scouting report from the time highlights his mobility and effectiveness rolling out of the pocket, skills that Palmer rarely displays at this advanced stage of his career. The poise and timing attributed to the young Palmer seem assigned to another person entirely.

There were rumors at the time that the Bengals, who had the first overall pick in that year’s draft, might trade the pick away to add depth to their roster. The Bears, who had the fourth overall pick, were rumored to be lurking as a likely landing spot for Palmer if the Bengals passed on him to take Charles Rogers or Terence Newman. Could Palmer’s career have looked much more different than if he had ended up with the Bears, a team that was about to have a three-year run as one of the best defenses in football? As it was, the Bengals drafted Palmer and the Bears traded down with the Jets, eventually drafting Rex Grossman with one of their two first-round picks.

Palmer, a four-year starter at USC, was kept on the sidelines his entire rookie season and didn’t throw a single pass. It’s hard to imagine that most of the bad teams in the league would have kept Palmer locked up on the sidelines all year, but the Bengals went 8-8 with Jon Kitna at the helm. That’s a full season wasted. Some would later credit his early success to spending that full year on the sidelines catching up, but it’s impossible to prove causation there. In today’s NFL it seems downright quaint to imagine a top-five pick spending the entire season on the sidelines, even though this happened to Palmer only a decade ago. Imagine Washington keeping Robert Griffin on the sidelines all season last year so they could start Rex Grossman for 16 more games. That doesn’t happen in a sports-blog-driven world.

Palmer didn’t have to wait much longer to get his opportunity; the Bengals installed him as the starter before the 2004 season and, injury aside, stuck with him throughout his “rookie” campaign. Palmer’s numbers weren’t incredible — he completed 61 percent of his passes, checked down a lot, and threw one touchdown for every interception — but he would become a star in 2005, his second season as the Cincinnati starter. During that second season, Palmer looked like the best young quarterback in football; he led the league in completion percentage (67.8 percent, the sort of figure that was unheard of at the time) and touchdown passes (32) while posting the league’s lowest sack rate (3.6 percent). He threw nearly three touchdowns for every interception, won 11 games with the Bengals for the first (and only) time since 1988, and made a star out of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a possession receiver and return man at the bottom of the Cincinnati offense. Alongside the already-established Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh would have his best success with Palmer in Cincinnati. And like Johnson, Houshmandzadeh would try to go elsewhere after his run in Cincinnati and struggle to make an impact.

That iteration of Palmer — the guy who looked every bit as good as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady in 2005 — was set to compete with Ben Roethlisberger for a decade’s worth of AFC North division titles. Instead, their rivalry as equals ended after Palmer’s first postseason pass. Hosting the Steelers in Cincinnati in the wild-card round, the Bengals forced the Steelers to punt. On their second play from scrimmage, Palmer dropped back and hit Chris Henry on a go-route for 66 yards. As the crowd celebrated, the camera panned back to reveal that Palmer was in agony behind the play. His knee had been ripped apart by a diving hit from Steelers lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, a blow that would be made illegal three years later after Tom Brady was taken out by a similarly diving Bernard Pollard. For the next four years, Palmer’s playoff record consisted entirely of one pass for 66 yards.1

There is an entire career missing there, eight more seasons of great quarterback play that we never saw. The injury came 11 days after Palmer agreed to terms on a mammoth six-year, $118.75 million contract extension. That deal, a testament to the player everybody expected Palmer to remain, would eventually help push Palmer out of Cincinnati altogether. The Bengals themselves never reached the heights that the 11-5 season seemed to point to with that core of talent, and Palmer eventually became the scapegoat.

When he did return nine months after tearing his ACL and MCL and dislocating his kneecap, Palmer wasn’t the same. Even with the quick return, 2006 was still the best season Palmer would ever have after that breakout season the year before. He completed 62.3 percent of his passes, threw for a career-high 7.8 yards per attempt, and had more than two touchdowns for every interception. And while he wasn’t quite as good in 2007, when he led the league with 20 interceptions, it wasn’t the sort of season that would stand out as notably poor, just a relatively disappointing season in the career of an otherwise-great player.2 Again, though, Palmer was about to take a step down.

After a slow start to the 2008 season, Palmer suffered an elbow injury in Week 3 when he was sacked by Giants cornerback Corey Webster. He didn’t report any issues until the following Friday before missing Week 4, and when an MRI revealed no structural damage, he came back for Week 5. It was the last game he played all year; despite Palmer finishing up that game without any complaints while going 23-for-39 with two touchdown passes, another MRI revealed that his elbow ligaments had detached from the bone, producing a torn UCL, which meant that he would likely need Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. Palmer passed on the surgery and was week-to-week for the rest of the season without ever returning.

Even more than the knee injury, the elbow injury dramatically changed Palmer’s level of performance. Here are Palmer’s rate statistics before and after that 2008 campaign:

That’s a bigger decline than the numbers might suggest. Palmer went from being a comfortably above-average quarterback to a slightly below-average one overnight; given his huge contract, that changed him from a necessary evil to an albatross in Cincinnati. There’s no video of the Webster hit online, but I wonder about how things might have been different without the knee injury. When Palmer came back, I saw a number of NFL shows that broke down his new mechanics and how he was unsure of himself in the pocket; Palmer wasn’t planting his leg on his throws, which caused him to be inaccurate. That also put more stress on his shoulder and elbow. He eventually started to plant his leg again, but it seems that the mechanical shifts that resulted from Palmer’s knee injury helped fray that elbow ligament. And might Palmer have been able to escape the hit and either get out of the pocket or create a throwing lane for himself if his knee had always been 100 percent?

In any case, when Palmer came back, he led the Bengals to another division title. But the numbers indicate that this was the first sign that Palmer’s arm strength had been sapped by the elbow injury; while he completed 60.5 percent of his passes, he averaged a mere 6.6 yards per attempt. He was still healthy enough to lead the Bengals to the playoffs, throwing in five game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks in the process. After they lost to the Jets, though, Palmer’s run as a successful quarterback in Cincinnati was over. He was mediocre during the 2010 season, throwing 20 interceptions without any discernible improvements elsewhere, and that was enough to end Palmer’s tenure with the team. His itinerant phase was beginning.

Palmer requested a trade to move on from Cincinnati, but he was facing a stubborn, foolish owner in Mike Brown, who dug in and forced Palmer to sit on the sideline. Palmer sat for the first six weeks of the regular season, but just before the trade deadline, an opportunity arose. The Raiders misguidedly believed they were contenders,3 and two years ago today, Raiders head coach Hue Jackson took advantage of a chaotic front office (following the death of Al Davis two weeks earlier) and replaced an injured Jason Campbell by dealing a first- and second-round pick to Cincinnati for its estranged quarterback. Oakland even signed Palmer to a contract extension worth $43 million, another deal that would come back to haunt the team that signed Palmer.

Oakland went 4-6 the rest of the way with the occasional big play from Palmer, but the bigger concern became his contract. When he flipped, his team had flopped. The Raiders fired Jackson after the season and replaced him with the combination of Dennis Allen at head coach and, crucially, Reggie McKenzie at general manager. McKenzie wanted to rebuild the barren team from the ground up, and that included the guy playing quarterback. Again, it was another wasted move for Palmer; right after giving up half a season to try to find the right team elsewhere, he ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong time. What could he have done with a season and a half alongside a better team? It was another false start.

Finally, the USC product refused to renegotiate his contract heading into this 2013 season, leading to another epic game of chicken between Palmer and his employers. It eventually led to the Raiders trading Palmer away (in order to start Matt Flynn, somehow) to the Cardinals for a conditional seventh-round pick. In agreeing to the deal, Palmer gave in, renegotiating his contract into a $16 million, two-year deal that the Cardinals will get out of after this season. Because the Raiders waited until the beginning of April to trade Palmer, Arizona was the last starting job left standing. It left Palmer playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and that was only the beginning. The Cardinals would draft guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round later that month, but Cooper suffered an injury in August that will keep him out for the whole year. Left tackle Levi Brown, the most notable offensive lineman on the roster, wasn’t remotely competent after coming back from a season-ending injury, and made it through only the middle of October before being dealt to the Steelers. If you saw what Seattle did to Palmer on Thursday, you know what’s going to be happening to Palmer over the remainder of the season. He’s basically going to get hit and hit until he gets hurt, and when he does, the Cardinals will be down to Drew Stanton at QB. Palmer is biding time before his next missed opportunity.

That’s four major events that drastically impacted Carson Palmer’s career: being drafted by the Bengals as opposed to a more hospitable organization, suffering the serious knee injury during his first playoff pass, having his elbow fall apart, and being traded to the Raiders only for the people who acquired him to get fired within months. In each case, he ended up getting the short side of the professional/medical stick. It seems horribly unfair for a player who was such a bright star in 2005. There’s no guarantee that things would be any different for him, but if anyone deserves another shot at the same career given his talent level, it’s Carson Palmer. Circumstances that were mostly out of his control prevented him from becoming the player he seemed he could be.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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