Quarterback Carson Palmer (3) runs off the field with linebacker Sam Acho following the Cardinals' win over Washington.
Carson Palmer had never been cheered like this before, not during pregame introductions.
But as the veteran quarterback emerged from the inflatable tunnel in the minutes before the Cardinals played Washington last weekend, the roar was noticeable. Gone from the lineup for three games and more than a month's time, Palmer was the semi-surprise to start. Perhaps that was part of the reason for the emotion, Palmer theorized, even if he couldn't really hear it in the muddled sounds down on the field.
Maybe it also was the realization of the fan base of just how important Palmer is to the franchise.
The Cardinals had been all but adrift in those years following Kurt Warner's retirement after the 2009 season. Finding a way to trade for Palmer in April of last year – in a heist from the Oakland Raiders, Sunday's opponent for the Cards – was a big step toward new-found stability.
"We're just getting started," Palmer said. "I'm just getting started here."
Even at age 34, Palmer's career looks like it still has time to go. In his second year in Bruce Arians' offense, Palmer has completed 64 percent of his passes in his two starts, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Palmer is technically under contract through 2015, but the deal's language calls for that 2015 season to void if Palmer is still on the Cardinals' roster five days after this year's Super Bowl. It means the Cardinals will have a little more than a month to extend his contract, if it doesn't happen before that.
The Cards will want Palmer back, although that could get cloudier should Palmer's nerve problems in his shoulder reemerge. Then, it will be a matter of agreeing to a new contract, and assuming they can come together on money, a continuing partnership would make sense for both sides.
If that wasn't apparent pre-shoulder injury, when Palmer had made 17 starts in a row since arriving in Arizona, it crystalized now that he has returned. The Cardinals had taken their hits, not the least of which being recent injuries to defensive stalwarts Calais Campbell and Matt Shaughnessy, but Palmer's appearance provided a confidence and a calming influence.
"We voted him our captain for a reason," said center Lyle Sendlein, a former offensive captain himself. "He's an obvious leader, in the huddle and definitely through his play."
In fact, Arians said, Palmer received more than 50 votes to be the offensive captain, a landslide in the locker room. When the Cardinals made the deal for Palmer last year, Arians understood what Palmer was as a passer, having seen him for so many years when Palmer
was playing for the Bengals and Arians coaching for the Steelers.
"That part I knew," Arians said. "The gym rat part, the leadership part, you don't know until you're around those guys."
Even while Palmer was out with his bad shoulder, Arians said, he made sure to be in the middle of meetings and on the sidelines in games, coaching Drew Stanton, helping Larry Fitzgerald.
After a bumpy end to his long tenure in Cincinnati, and another roller coaster ride in Oakland, Palmer is effusive in his praise of the stability of the Cardinals.
"That's something I have not been part of for a very long time," Palmer said.
Palmer refuses to be critical of the Raiders and of how his time went in Oakland, saying his time there was "special," but a victim of bad timing. Dealing with salary cap misery, the Raiders wanted him to take a second pay cut in two years after the 2012 season, and Palmer was ready to move along.
"It was just an odd time," Palmer said. "There's no word. It was odd. One year everybody had to get cut that was making anything over vet minimum because of the way all those contracts were frontloaded or backloaded, whatever it was. New coach, new GM, it was just a weird time. The owner (Al Davis) had died, the face of the organization. It was just an odd time and unfortunate. Selfishly, it was unfortunate."
Palmer said he doesn't feel anything special about Sunday's game, not when the Oakland roster has almost completely turned over since he last played with the Raiders. That he is playing for the Cardinals again is the special part of the equation for both he and the team, because he makes that kind of impact.
After the trade to the Cardinals (for only a sixth-round pick when it was all said and done), Palmer said many times it was going to take work for he and his new teammates to digest Arians' offense. It led to some poor games early in the marriage. But in Palmer's last 11 starts, the Cardinals are 9-2, and Palmer has completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,087 yards, with 20 touchdowns and only nine interceptions (four coming in one game, a win in Seattle) and a 97.3 passer rating.
Those echo statistics Warner used to provide, and chases away the ghosts of starters like Max Hall, Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. It's why the cheers went up at University of Phoenix Stadium when Palmer came back.
"We lost some games that we shouldn't have last year that kept us out of the playoffs; this year we've won those games, so that's a great lesson," Palmer said.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think we're getting ready to define hopefully my time here and our time as a team."
Images of quarterback Carson Palmer, who played for the Raiders before the Cardinals