Monday May 16th, 2016

Even if his pass protection manages to keep him pristine in the pocket, no quarterback in the NFL will face the unrelenting pressure that Arizona’s Carson Palmer will be subjected to this season. And there won’t be any escaping it, at least until January rolls around, when he could make it all go away.

That’s the stark reality that Palmer faces in 2016. It boils down to this: After an MVP-level season, Palmer experienced a monumental meltdown in the playoffs for a Cardinals team that was on the cusp of a Super Bowl. And in built-to-win-now Arizona, the Super Bowl remains the goal. There’s pressure of varying degrees on a host of starting quarterbacks this year, but for Palmer, the heat on him is at a whole different level. And it can’t be dismissed for months and months.

No matter what he accomplishes in the regular season—even if he leads the Cardinals to another stellar 13–3 record and a second consecutive title in the rugged NFC West—Palmer has to deal with the stigma that he clearly buckled under the pressure in last year’s playoffs. He looked shaky at times in Arizona’s epic 26–20 overtime win over visiting Green Bay in the divisional round, but that uneven performance was nothing compared to his six-turnover (four interceptions, two fumbles lost) catastrophe in the Cardinals’ stunning 49–15 collapse at Carolina in the NFC Championship Game.

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All quarterbacks have to learn to turn the page after a rough showing, but has there ever been a quarterback turning the page after a disaster like Palmer’s? He’s 36 and playing for an organization that has incrementally improved in each of coach Bruce Arians’s three seasons (from 10–6, to 11–5, to 13–3), and there’s no time to waste. By leaps and bounds, this is the most talented team Palmer has ever played for, and if he can’t get these Cardinals to the Super Bowl, he will probably never get a better shot to scale the NFL’s ultimate summit. It’s now or never for Palmer—and perhaps the 63-year-old Arians—too, and it’s all riding on how the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft responds to that sense of urgency.

Right now, Palmer is saying all the right things about flushing his putrid eight-turnover postseason and moving on, but what else can he do? The only thing that matters now is how he plays if the Cardinals can get back to the playoffs, and there are miles and miles to go before that opportunity again knocks. What he does in January will be the only answer that anyone remembers anyway.

“You just turn the page,” Palmer told the Arizona Republic earlier this off-season. “You have to. There is no dwelling. There is no feeling sorry for yourself. There is no locking yourself in a closet. I’ve played 150-something games. You can’t let one game define you. You just have to move on ... There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a good pressure.”

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Perhaps, but for now, the debacle against Carolina will define Palmer until he forces the narrative to change. His 29–9 record as Arizona’s starter since 2013 is not the statistic that lingers on everyone’s mind at the moment. Instead it’s the memory of him falling apart against Carolina, essentially robbing Arizona of whatever little chance it had to beat the 16–1 Panthers on that day.

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Yes, the gambling Cardinals defense was very much a culprit as well in Charlotte, and to be sure, Palmer still seemed to be battling the effects of the right index finger he dislocated in a Week 15 blowout win over Philadelphia. But those are details that tend to get lost in the NFL, where the quarterback gets both the outsized blame and credit no matter how fair or unfair it may be.

The bottom line is that Palmer didn’t play remotely well enough to win the biggest game of his career. And like it or not, that will be the theme of the Cardinals’ 2016 season: their Super Bowl chances disintegrated when they were poised on the doorstep last January. Just as Cam Newton and the Panthers must live down their uncharacteristic struggles on Super Bowl Sunday, the Cardinals this year will be focused on trying to make amends for the ugly events of the NFC title game. And those efforts start with making up for Palmer’s wildly disappointing play.

A very real issue that will go largely unspoken this year in Arizona is how Palmer must somehow regain the trust of the teammates and coaches he let down last January. It’s a challenge he can’t completely accomplish, however, until he performs in the playoffs like he does in the regular season for the Cardinals. It’s a classic Catch-22, and anyone in Arizona who says there has been no loss of faith in No. 3 is not being honest. Until they see Palmer get it done in January, where he’s just 1–3 in his career as a starter, there will be doubts about whether he can.   

That’s the unremitting pressure Carson Palmer must cope with this season. And even if he’s perfect from September through December, the only thing that really matters is what comes after that.

Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016. 

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