Cardinals quarterbacks, old school and new school: Josh McCown (left), who is expected to start against the Cards Sunday for the Browns, and Carson Palmer (right).
Josh McCown's most vivid memories of the Cardinals – other than the children that were born during his four years in Arizona at the start of his NFL career – start with his miraculous Hail Mary to Nate Poole to beat the Vikings on the final play of the 2003 season.
It was a big play, one that was a reason Larry Fitzgerald ended up with the Cardinals. It marked the beginning of the transition of the franchise, with Dave McGinnis fired after the win and Dennis Green's arrival ahead of the soon-to-be-completed University of Phoenix Stadium.
It was one of the few major on-field highlights McCown was able to have in Arizona, as the franchise sought then for a quarterback of the future, at a position that has often given the team trouble save for two veteran arrivals. One of those
veterans was Carson Palmer, who has inserted himself into MVP conversation for the NFC West-leading Cardinals. Sunday, he'll likely match up against McCown, who continues what has been an unlikely late-career resurgence as the starter for the Cleveland Browns.
The laundry list of quarterbacks connecting McCown's time to the Cardinals and Palmer's current stead is long. The only other QB to have sustained success in that window was Kurt Warner – whose signing in 2005 was the beginning of the end of McCown's time in the desert.
But all the other names are familiar to fans: Jeff Blake, who started most of the season McCown finished in 2003 against the Vikings. Shaun King. Matt Leinart. Derek Anderson. Max Hall. John Skelton. Kevin Kolb. Ryan Lindley. A brief cameo from Brian Hoyer.
There were high-flying moments in the Warner era offensively, especially throwing the ball. But Palmer is leading an offense much more well-rounded.
"I thought we'd be there sooner," coach Bruce Arians said. "We were there last year if we could have kept him healthy, because of his work habits. It's disappointing that we had to wait a year to this point, and we haven't gotten anywhere yet. We're still on a good journey."
Palmer has been excellent this season, coming back from knee surgery. There have been blips – he'd like the last interception back in Pittsburgh, and the last few incompletions against the Rams – but Palmer has completed 65 percent of his passes, averaged a league-best 9.1 yards an attempt and has 16 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions.
Expectations didn't weigh on Palmer when he arrived, but he wasn't unaware of the issues either.
"The struggles that the organization had had in the past, with the new regime with Steve Keim and obviously Bruce, you want to turn it around," Palmer said. "You want to be part of a change and part of a turnaround. You want to win as quickly as possible. You want to learn as much as you can as quickly as possible."
As Palmer said it, he was standing outside the team's new cafeteria, part of the tangible proof of the changes the franchise has undergone since McCown left. McCown's final game as a Cardinal was the team's final game in Sun Devil Stadium, a totally different home field than what the team has now.
McCown is one of only three players left from McGinnis' last team still playing – Anquan Boldin and Calvin Pace are the others. He has been at University of Phoenix Stadium a couple of times as the visitor, even playing wide receiver for a play when he was with the Lions in 2006 ("I remember running a route and taking a left turn toward the Cardinals bench and running and seeing Larry and Anquan laugh at me.")
That he is still around is a surprise. He was out of the NFL in 2010, playing briefly in the United Football League. But he latched on with the Bears and did a stellar fill-in turn when Jay Cutler was injured in 2013. That's led to nice contracts and starting jobs in Tampa Bay in 2014 and now Cleveland. He doesn't always remember how many teams he's been with.
"I always have to count," said McCown, who was the Cards' third-round pick in 2002. "I think it's seven or eight. Somebody put it up the other day, and I was trying to count actual jerseys and it might be nine. I always mess it up."
(For the record, it's nine NFL clubs – Cardinals, Lions, Raiders, Dolphins, Panthers, 49ers, Bears, Buccaneers and Browns .)
McCown is a long way from the days when Green pointed at his athleticism and potential as the reason the Cardinals would likely pass on college quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers to take superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald with the third pick in the 2004 draft.
It didn't quite work out. The Cardinals' quarterback hunt found Warner, who became the blueprint for the Palmer plans – a veteran with something to prove one last time. McCown, meanwhile, proved he could have some NFL staying power.
"I definitely feel like I had a goal in mind to play this long," said McCown, who lives just a few miles from Poole in North Carolina. "The career path, I don't think anybody could have thought of. I certainly wasn't thinking back then, 'I'm going to see how many teams I can play for, and leagues too.' It's been a crazy ride."