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The Cards Are Clicking

After an inconsistent start to the season, Arizona has reeled off four straight wins and is right in the playoff hunt. How have the Cardinals done it? Carson Palmer, his teammates and coaches are all beginning to understand each other

PHOENIX — After throwing at least one interception in each of his first nine games, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has gone back-to-back weeks without being picked off. After throwing for 300 yards only once in his first nine games, he has surpassed that total in each of the past two weeks. He also has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in his past two games after doing it only once in his first nine.

If you’re looking for a sexy or insightful explanation for Palmer’s recent turnaround under new coach Bruce Arians, you’ll have to search outside the Cardinals organization. Within the stucco walls of their two-story training facility, there is no talk of ah-ha moments, season-altering conversations, or ground-zero plays. The explanation is much more boring and linear, as in a crawl (new coaching staff + new players) becomes a walk (new players learn new system and each other) becomes a run (new players and new system become one).

“It was a grind in the beginning,” says Palmer, who has helped the Cardinals (7-4) to four straight wins and playoff contender status. “From OTAs through training camp we were doing things wrong. I was going the wrong way with balls; receivers were at the wrong depths; we were lining up in the wrong formations. I think maybe three weeks ago, four weeks ago, I finally started to get comfortable and things started to click.”

Typically in such situations a first-year head coach might scale back the offense until everyone is reading on the same page. However Arians knows only one way, and that’s to proceed with his foot firmly on the gas pedal. He kept coaching the same things, in the same way, to the same guys, stubbornly trusting in his system and his players’ abilities to eventually grasp it. On Sunday everything came together in the form of a 40-11 victory over the Colts that gave Arizona control of its playoff destiny.

“Bruce didn’t take it easy on us,” Palmer says. “He said, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and we knew it. But we were screwing up all the time. The mental error sheet was a page and a half for a long, long time, and these last three or four weeks it’s been down to a quarter of a page. I mean, we were a mess on offense but he had a plan _ and he’s very consistent and constant with that plan. He knew we needed to have all of this stuff in, and he knew it was going to take a while. He didn’t know how long it would take; none of us knew. But we’re really starting to start click.”

The proof is in the numbers. After failing to score more than 25 points in each of their first seven games, they’ve surpassed 27 in each of the past four. Their 40 against the Colts was the franchise’s highest output in three years and 46 games. Critics have pooh-poohed the surge by pointing out it has come against struggling teams or defenses—Atlanta has lost five in a row and eight of nine; Houston has lost nine straight; Jacksonville was 1-8 when the teams met; and Indianapolis has surrendered at least 30 points in three of its past five games—but history says the turnaround is as much about Arians and the Cardinals as it is their opponents.

In their first season working together, it took Arians and Palmer awhile to get on the same page. (Ric Tapia/AP)

In their first season working together, it took Arians and Palmer awhile to get on the same page. (Ric Tapia/AP)
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In the four years before arriving in Arizona, Arians coordinated offenses in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh that finished in the top 14 in total offense. He helped the Steelers reach two Super Bowls. Heck, the man was the coordinator of a Browns offense that went to the playoffs with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb starting at quarterback. If that doesn’t speak to his abilities as a coach, what does?

Still, it has been a bumpy ride to this point because Arians refused to baby Palmer or his offensive players. He basically threw the entire playbook at them and told them to figure out its nuances on their own. That was difficult because Palmer had never worked with receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd or Andre Roberts. He needed to learn how they viewed certain coverages, just as they needed to understand how he viewed them. Being in sync is critical in any passing game, but even moreso with Arians’ system because the reads and routes are so fluid. Palmer calls it the most complicated he has seen since 2003, when the Bengals made him the No. 1 overall pick of the draft.

“The best way to probably describe it is—and I don’t want to get into specifics—but on one particular play there’s more than one right read, and maybe it’s just up to the quarterback to figure out what’s best for him and the people around him,” says QB coach Freddie Kitchens. “Basically just because a route is supposed to be a certain way doesn’t mean it can’t waver, or just because the ball is supposed to be thrown in this particular area doesn’t mean it can’t change during the course of the play. Nothing is set in stone.

"It takes time to get on the same page in that scenario, but once it happens it can be very, very good. You don’t really realize it until you go through it and come out on the other side. You think back and say, ‘Hell, I could have done that earlier.’ But really you couldn’t have until you went through some of the growing pains.”

The pains were significant. Palmer failed to have more touchdown passes than interceptions in his first seven games. In a 34-22 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 17, he was sacked a season-high seven times and the offense managed just 130 yards through three quarters. But since then the unit has gradually and suddenly gone from a crawl to a run.

Palmer attempted just 18 passes the following week against the Falcons and finished with two touchdowns and only one interception. The next week against the Texans he threw for 241 yards and two scores with one pick. Against the Jaguars he threw for 419 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers—it was his most yards passing since burning San Diego for 440 in November 2006 while with Cincinnati— and last Sunday he went for 314 with a pair of scores and no turnovers.

“I’m starting to trust all the guys around me and they’re starting to trust me,” says Palmer, who on Wednesday was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. “We’re also doing a great job up front working with each other. When you install a new coaching staff, with new players and a brand new offense—new protections, new run game—there’s no rule that says you install it in OTAs and all of a sudden you have it down in training camp. It takes as long as it takes. You’d like to have it Week 2 of training camp, but sometimes it takes till Week 6 of the season.”

The Cardinals likely wouldn’t be challenging for their first playoff berth since the 2009 season if not for the level-headedness of Palmer. The organization has been searching for a leader at the position since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season and back-to-back playoff appearances. In the three years that followed John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer, Richard Bartel, Derek Anderson and Max Hall took snaps for them, making Arizona a wasteland for quarterbacks. But there is hope now, in part because of the example set by Palmer.

“People talk about toughness in football, and what is that?” says Kitchens. “Getting up off the ground after you’ve been hit—hell, is that really toughness? You’re a football player. You’re supposed to get up off the ground. Toughness is getting hit in the mouth while throwing the ball and sitting in there the very next play and expecting the same thing to happen to you and delivering the pass on time, where it’s supposed to be. That’s toughness.