Arizona's Carson Palmer is back, better and has eye on going deep

Carson Palmer is returning from a torn ACL that cut his 2014 season short

For Carson Palmer, retracing old footsteps could lead to a place he's never been.

The Arizona Cardinals quarterback, who is set to begin his 13th NFL season and is still looking for his first playoff victory, is coming off a familiar injury. His 2014 season was cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the same joint that was severely injured by a gruesome hit in 2005, when he was playing for Cincinnati.

The memory of the original injury, and what it took to get back on the field, now serves as a road map for Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winner from USC who was taken first overall in the 2003 draft. An ACL? That's already in his GPS.

"It's been easier this time because I knew the mental challenges and the dog days of it," said Palmer, 35, as he sat with a reporter in an otherwise empty hallway at the Cardinals' training camp hotel. "I know the pain-in-the-butt stuff where you're asking, 'Why am I doing this?' and then you find out. So I knew that stuff was coming."

Despite a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder that sidelined him for an early part of the season, Palmer was off to a strong start in 2014. He was 6-0 as a starter, the first Cardinals quarterback to win six consecutive starts since Jim Hart in 1977.

Coach Bruce Arians and Cardinals players say Palmer is throwing the ball better than at any point since the quarterback came to Arizona in 2013. At a recent practice, Palmer threw a pass 65 yards, dropping the ball neatly into the hands of receiver John Brown.

"Instead of underthrowing them, he's hitting me in full stride without me even having to slow down," Brown said. "Before, a lot of them were underthrown and I had to wait."

Arians knew the 65-yarder was a long completion when he was watching from field level, but he didn't know how long it actually was until watching video of practice later.

"I was like, 'Whoa! Run that back!'" Arians said. "I was thinking, 'Holy smokes, that's a long ball!' I thought it was 50 on the field, but he dropped back and threw it 65. Effortless too."

Palmer said his lengthy rehab from last season allowed him to work through the shoulder issues, and fine-tune his throwing motion.

Unlike the second time the knee gave out, which happened without contact, the first time was nightmarish — Pittsburgh's 300-pound Kimo von Oelhoffen crashing into the lower part of Palmer's leg on the Bengals' first series in a playoff game — and it took a long time for Palmer to block out the image in his head.

Even after his knee had been rebuilt and he was ready to return, Palmer had that skittish feeling on the field, as if he had been in a car accident and was ultra-aware of every car around him.

"The first time, there was trauma," he said. "I was hit, and I saw it out of the corner of my eye as I was letting the ball go. I felt the knee go the wrong way. I heard the cracks and pops. Because of that, coming back from it, I was reluctant to step into throws.

"I'd see something flash before my eyes, like somebody was going to hit me, even though he'd be on the ground four feet in front of me and I was fine. It took me weeks into the regular season and live action to not step into throws and then pull my foot back."

Palmer, the unquestioned leader of a rebranded and relevant Cardinals franchise, doesn't see those ghosts anymore. He confidently steps into his throws. There's no flinching. He's the same quarterback who quietly won 13 of his last 15 starts, putting up numbers that rival New England's Tom Brady, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, or any other quarterback in the game.

Dating to Week 8 of the 2013 season, Palmer's .867 winning percentage as a starter is best in the NFL, topping Philadelphia's Nick Foles (.813), now with St. Louis; Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning (both at .778); and Seattle's Russell Wilson (.722).

"You would never know [Palmer] was coming off an ACL," said backup quarterback Drew Stanton, who, coming off a knee injury of his own, rented a home in Del Mar this summer so he could work out with Palmer. "People around here are more nervous than he is when people are falling into him or something."

That was evident during one of the first practices of camp, when safety Tyrann Mathieu knocked a running back into Palmer and upended the quarterback. Mathieu popped to his feet, rushed over to help Palmer up, apologized profusely, and texted him three times that night.

Even though they cycled through four quarterbacks last season, the Cardinals advanced to the playoffs, where they hung tough for more than a half with Ryan Lindley under center before losing, 27-16.

Stanton proved to be a capable backup, posting a 5-3 record as a starter last season and winning all three of his starts at home before he was injured.

"I wouldn't trade our quarterback room as a group for anybody's, because we have two proven winners," Arians said. "There's Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers out there, but who's behind them? Are they going to go 5-3 for you down the stretch?

"Drew's legitimized himself. Now, when he goes out there against our [first-team defense], it's a fistfight. Because they're going against a quality quarterback with some pretty good receivers on our second bunch. They're getting really tested."

The goal, of course, is to keep Stanton on the sideline. Palmer thinks he's in position to do what Kurt Warner did in the twilight of his career in Arizona — lead the Cardinals to a Super Bowl.

He's not worried about money; he has plenty. He's not worried about his next contract. He's not worried about getting injured, or that he's nearing the end of his career. He's purely focused on winning.

"It's freeing," Palmer said. "There are so many little things that can cloud your mind. My mind is filled with one thing. Right now, it's just selfish — I want to get better each week so we can win a Super Bowl."

In the Valley of the Sun, the Cardinals are pinning their hopes to a quarterback with an uncluttered mind to send them on a deep route, maybe deeper than they've ever been.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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