Quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Brees embrace after the Cardinals played the Saints in 2013.
Bruce Arians regularly compares himself and Carson Palmer to a pair of cowboys enjoying the last go-round of their careers before a ride off into the sunset.
After a year and a half on the job, Arians has proven he's not yet ready to mount his horse and begin the trip. He engineered a five-game turnaround in his first season, and exudes a competency which has the entire organization optimistic about its long-term future.
Palmer's fate is a little more complicated. If he has a subpar season, there will be a loud refrain to give rookie Logan Thomas or a different quarterback the reins in 2015. Palmer will need a new contract at year's end, which would make it easy for the organization to go in a different direction.
But there is also the mounting sense that Palmer, even at the age of 34, is just now settling in. While he is entering the back slope of his career, growing old at quarterback is not the same kiss of death as other positions. Of the top-12 passing yardage leaders in 2013, seven of them – including Palmer -- were 32 or older. That list includes Peyton Manning (38), Tom Brady (37) and Drew Brees (35), three elite signal-callers who haven't lost much effectiveness at all from their physical prime.
"Fortunately," Palmer said, "I play a position where you don't need to be 25 to keep up with everybody."
Palmer set a career-high in passing yards last season (4,274) and ended with a quarterback rating of 83.9, his second-best
mark in the past six years.
It included a slow debut, when Palmer threw for 1,741 yards with eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions in the first seven games of 2013. But as he grasped the offense the results improved. The Cardinals went 7-2 down the stretch in large part due to Palmer's proficiency, as he threw for 2,533 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions in that span.
"Last year was a very uncomfortable offseason, an uncomfortable training camp because you are learning, learning and learning and you never really feel confident in what you are doing," Palmer said.
Arians said that continuity within an offensive system plays a critical role in a quarterback's success. The Cardinals have spoken glowingly of the strides they've made in Year 2 under Arians, and expect to be a much more explosive team.
"In Carson's case, he has not been in the same system, so getting in the same system for two years and hearing it over and over (is key)," Arians said. "Tom's been in the same system forever, whoever's been calling the plays. Same thing with Peyton. He carries his system with him and the coaches adapt. Drew Brees, same thing. He's flourished with Sean (Payton). Hopefully that's the same thing that's going to happen with Carson."
The Cardinals begin their season Monday night against a Chargers team with a veteran quarterback of their own. At the onset of 2013, Philip Rivers had declined steadily from the peak he set as a 27-year-old in 2008. Last season he bounced back, finishing with the highest completion percentage (69.5), lowest interception percentage (2.0) and tying the best quarterback rating (105.5) of his career. Everywhere you look, veteran quarterbacks are finding success.
"I really think in a lot of ways, at our position, that 30s number isn't as significant as it is at other positions," Rivers said.
"Around the league, there are a lot of them playing some of their best ball well into their 30s. That doesn't give me more confidence, but you are aware of it."
Quarterbacks can play in the NFL longer than others because the position has an integral mental component. Manning has clearly lost arm strength, but he threw for an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013 because he knows what defenses are going to do before the snap.
A powerful arm is important because the open windows are small, but throwing to the right target is paramount.
"Look at some of the quarterbacks who never panned out in the NFL," tackle Jared Veldheer said. "Guys with huge arms, and they couldn't do anything mentally. They couldn't find the guy. You can't do anything if you don't have a brain."
As they age, quarterbacks inevitably slow down. Palmer said it now takes an extra day or two to feel right physically following a game, and that's with the extra massages and treatment he's implemented. But while older signal-callers may have more physical limitations, advances in their preparation can make up for those shortcomings.
"When you've got good (quarterbacks) – regardless of how old they are – and they've got plenty of experience, they figure it all out," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. "They go out there, and there's only one way to do it and it's all about winning."
At halftime against San Diego, the Cardinals will induct Kurt Warner into their Ring of Honor. He's the team's most famous quarterback success story and he did it when he was "old" -- joining the Cardinals at 34 and taking them to the Super Bowl at 37. Warner played at a high level through age 38, when he led the Cardinals to a playoff victory before retiring after the season. The Cardinals would have loved to see him stick around and play at age 39, too.
Palmer never had Warner's peak, and it's unlikely he suddenly becomes an MVP candidate. But with a defense that could still be menacing and an offense repurposed with more dangerous skill players, a recreation of Palmer's success in the last nine weeks in 2013 would make the Cardinals a playoff contender.
He is eight months older now and will turn 35 before the end of the season, so there is legitimate reason to think Palmer will show his age in 2014.
After a look around the league, maybe that's not a bad thing.
"I see the same Carson, if not even better, under coach Arians," said Veldheer, who played with Palmer in Oakland in 2011-12. "He's as sharp mentally. He's very good passing the ball. And now, being in the system for another year, you can tighten stuff more with the receivers. It's going to be exciting to be in there for a full game to see all the damage he can do through the air."