Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer: "It's one of those things where you have to break through. And I will."
A year ago, it was about the physical hurdle Carson Palmer faced getting back on the field.
Now, it'll be about a much more nebulous mental hurdle that the Cardinals quarterback may – or may not – have in front of him.
Palmer insists he has no questions about how he will rally from the disastrous NFC Championship game after throwing four interceptions and fumbling twice, but he also acknowledged he knows others do.
"It's one of those things where you have to break through," Palmer said the day after the season ended. "And I will."
There are plenty of reasons to believe that. Palmer was, after all, an MVP candidate. He did throw for franchise
records in yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35) with only 11 interceptions during the regular season. No, Palmer wasn't particularly sharp in the playoff win over the Packers, but he still threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns in that game. The Green Bay yards were skewed a bit, since 75 came on Larry Fitzgerald's overtime dash, but then again, Palmer's fantastic spin-out-of-the-sack move and throw cross-field to get it to Fitzgerald was probably the most impressive part of that play.
There were popular comparisons – given the teams involved and the venue – to parallel Palmer's night and that of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme against the Cardinals in the playoffs in 2008, the game Delhomme "picked a bad day to have a bad day" in the words of then-coach John Fox.
Delhomme never recovered, struggling the next season. But Delhomme only had 15 TD passes and 12 interceptions in 2008. It's not like he had played at an MVP-level before the playoffs. Not anywhere like Palmer did in 2015.
And then there was the finger.
Palmer insisted multiple times his right index finger, dislocated originally against the Eagles, was not an issue. Coach Bruce Arians said the same after the NFC Championship. I saw enough – including the rest of the Philadelphia game when Palmer was hurt and the first Green Bay game – to believe both. It understandably would be a popular scapegoat once the Carolina game went south. His finger probably wasn't 100 percent.
Arians did say in hindsight, maybe Palmer shouldn't have played the meaningless finale against Seattle. But, given that the Cardinals were about to head into the playoffs as a No. 2 seed with a realistic Super Bowl shot, it's hard to believe the injury was causing much concern.
In the end, it was a bad ending to a great season. That goes for the team and not just Palmer. Getting in 17-0 holes against one of the best defensive teams in the league doesn't help a quarterback.
So Palmer says he will learn. Whatever Palmer does going forward, it won't be for lack of effort. He doesn't have the physical work that must be done this offseason like he did last year, but the drive Palmer showed last year to come back from the knee injury is exactly what the Cardinals are counting on this offseason.
Lots of players talk about using losses as fuel. Palmer has proven he'll do more than just talk about it. He admitted to how rough the NFC title game was to endure – "Staring over at that sideline and that feeling that the other team has, that's going to stick with me for probably the rest of my life," he said after – but it will be no more painful than what Cam Newton now will live with after Super Bowl 50.
The only difference there will be the timeline. It is possible Newton never again has the chance to play in a Super Bowl, but he knows he has many more years to try. One of the things that pushed Palmer last offseason in coming back from his knee injury was the realization his opportunities are limited.
"If you are lucky enough to play as long as I have, you don't know until you get to the end how small that window is, how few opportunities you will have," Palmer said last June. "So I thought I was all-in and 100 percent in and very focused and committed and I was not compared to where I am now. It wasn't for lack of trying, it's just that I didn't realize it. I wasn't mature enough to realize it back then. (The end) wasn't as close to reality as it is now."
With that knowledge, Palmer heads into another offseason with a potential obstacle to overcome. He conquered the first. He's smart enough to do it again.
Images of the team's top rushers this season