Quarterback Carson Palmer, who considered retiring with the Bengals in 2011, faces his former team Sunday night.
Carson Palmer hasn't been a Bengal in a few years, his career in Cincinnati separated now with a stop in Oakland.
He's already played his former team once, when he was under center for the Raiders, so Sunday night's game between the Cardinals and Bengals at University of Phoenix Stadium doesn't even mark any particular milestone. But there is this reality – without Palmer's messy divorce from his original team, just where would the Cardinals be right now?
Palmer was exactly the kind of quarterback Bruce Arians wanted when he came to coach in Arizona and the trade to get him from
Oakland was a natural. Arians knew Palmer from so many years when Arians was coaching on the Pittsburgh sidelines and he watched Palmer play twice a season for the Bengals.
"I knew he was tough as hell," Arians said. "We tried to knock him out and we could never knock him out. He had the freak injury in the playoff game and if he had not gotten hurt I don't know if we had won the game. He always had that tremendous deep ball. I kind of didn't know what kind of gym rat he was but I knew he was tougher than hell. Now that we've got the gym rat, I really like it."
Palmer doesn't love the subject of his Bengals tenure. He speaks in generalities, talking about the "lots of memories" and "good people" he met during his nine years after Cincinnati took him No. 1 overall in 2003. He played for some good teams, including one that probably was better than the Steelers in 2005.
That's the game in which Palmer was knocked out on the first play of the game after a shot to the knee by a Steelers defensive lineman, shredding Palmer's ACL. Without Palmer, the Bengals lost, and Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl.
There weren't enough of those highlights, though, and after the 2010 season, Palmer was looking to be traded. The Bengals said they wouldn't, and a frustrated Palmer, drained by the losing, considered retirement.
"It was hard," said current Cardinals defensive end Frostee Rucker, who was Palmer's Cincinnati teammate. "When you have been around a guy, a constant professional who doesn't complain about much, when you get to a boiling point of a man, it just sucks because we knew in that locker room the type of person and player Carson is, and to see how disappointed he was not to be able to … not change anything, but to get what he wanted, so to say."
Palmer maintains that he always hoped to continue his career at that point. Eventually, the Raiders offered the Bengals – who had rookie quarterback Andy Dalton – a deal they couldn't refuse, with first- and second-round draft picks.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were floundering with their own unstable quarterback situation in that same time period. Palmer lasted just a season-and-a-half in Oakland, and Arians and General Manager Steve Keim were thrilled to be able to get him last season.
As good as the defense was for the Cardinals was last season, and even with the rash of interceptions Palmer threw in the first half of the season, it's difficult to see the Cardinals as a 10-win team in 2013 without Palmer's arrival.
Thus far in the preseason, Palmer has been incredibly sharp, comfortable in his second year in Arians' offense and behind a better offensive line. And while he isn't where he was athletically he was when he played for the Bengals, he's grown as a person.
"The stage in your life and career, the things you have learned, the pros and cons. his growth as a person is huge," said Rucker, who has known Palmer since high school and was teammates with him in college at USC.
"I've never heard him complain about anything," Rucker added. "As the face of the franchise you
can take a lot of criticism and I think being the face of the franchise (in Cincinnati) he can take the excess heat."
Palmer said it's not like he can forget he is playing the Bengals Sunday or think back to those days, but he insisted the focus remains on the Cardinals' improvement. Only 16 players remain on the Bengals from when Palmer last played there, although coach Marvin Lewis is still there.
"He's gone on, we've gone on, and everybody's happy," Lewis said. "He played his tail off last year. He's impressive to watch. He's still Carson. That's why it's hard, every time we look at a quarterback, bringing these guys in from off the street, man, it's hard to compare.
"You still see it every time he drops back. It's just so impressive. I was talking to (tight end Tyler) Eifert, he played with Carson in that golf outing out there in Tahoe this year. He's impressive with his physical skills that way, throwing the ball. It's hard to compare anybody else to him. I've never seen anybody like it."
He's the quarterback Arians said last year he would ride off into the sunset with, and Palmer's importance is clear for the Cardinals. Leaving the Bengals helped make that marriage happen.
"You think about the good, the bad, the ugly," Palmer said of his Cincinnati time. "More often you think about the good. But you just know what it is like being on that sideline, playing for that organization wherever it might be. That's what is special about it."