John “Smokey” Brown remembers this time last year, when Carson Palmer – already sidelined for the season with a knee injury – stood up in front of the team prior to the Cardinals’ postseason trip to Carolina.
The quarterback wanted to emphasize how important it was to seize the moment. That it was difficult just to reach the playoffs, as he knew from his then-12 years in the league. That the Cards needed to take advantage of the opportunity.
“It still sticks to me to this day,” Brown said Wednesday.
“Being in this league as long as Carson has been,” Brown added, “I know (winning) means a lot to him.”
Palmer has had the best quarterback season in franchise history, whether it is measured by yards, passer rating, touchdown passes
Palmer already believes a win would be “huge” for the team, so he shrugs off the idea it would be any more important to him on a personal level. But for a player picked No. 1 overall in 2003, he had been hoping for playoff success before now.
The Cardinals were set up to get a win in 2014, but Palmer’s injury ended that hope, both on a personal level and with the team’s ability to advance. Palmer had last played in a playoff game after the 2009 season, when the Bengals disappointingly lost a home Wild Card game, 24-14, against the Jets – a team that beat up the Bengals, 37-0, in the regular-season finale the week before when the Bengals chose to rest their main players. In that game, Palmer completed only 18 of 36 passes for 146 yards, a touchdown and an interception against a very good Rex Ryan defense.
But the one that sticks with Palmer even more was his only other playoff game in 2005, when the Bengals hosted the Steelers in the Wild Card round with a powerful, balanced offense after what had been Palmer’s previous best season.
Palmer’s first and only pass of the game was a perfect 66-yard bomb to wide receiver Chris Henry, a play in which Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen infamously crashed low into Palmer’s knee, shredding ligaments. The Bengals took a 17-7 lead in the game, but without Palmer, couldn’t sustain in a 31-17 loss.
That was a game many -- including Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, then the Steelers wide receivers coach – believe the Bengals would have won if Palmer had remained healthy.
“There’s a good chance they do because the play he got hurt, I was standing about 50 yards away from him,” Arians said. “(The pass) dropped right over Chris Henry’s shoulder and it was like, ‘Oh (expletive), we’re in trouble.”
The same question gives Palmer pause as he considered what might have been.
“It’s so easy to sit back and say and have an expert opinion,” Palmer said. “We beat them pretty good when we played them earlier in the year and I think we were playing pretty well at that point in the year. I mean, who knows. No crystal ball, so you don’t know.”
It is a healthy Palmer who chases that initial playoff win. Arians said Palmer was “jumping around like a young fella” at Wednesday’s practice, and Palmer said it was a pleasure to be in good shape, working on footwork and mechanics.
Palmer’s injury to his right index finger had provided a bad byproduct – previously, his slightly adjusted throwing motion to account for the injury had left him with a sore right lat muscle -- but an adjustment in treatment fixed the issue.
Once concerned about where his 2014 knee injury might leave him in terms of his football future, Palmer insisted he “never had that fear” of not getting another chance at the playoffs. He doesn’t want to miss on this opportunity.
“I just knew it would happen,” Palmer said. “I don’t know how. I didn’t know when or how, but I just expected it and prepared for it.”