In January 2011, Carson Palmer announced that he no longer wanted any part of playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Two months later, Palmer doubled down on his pledge, proclaiming that he’d rather retire than “set foot in Paul Brown Stadium again.”
Maybe I’m wrong, but at the time, I believe a lot of reasonable Bengals fans could understand Palmer’s frustrations with the organization. The Bengals were coming off a 4-12 season that featured a 10-game losing skid. Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens had a TV show. And Marvin Lewis appeared set on leaving town before reversing course following a few kumbaya meetings with owner Mike Brown.
Palmer eventually got his wish in October 2011 when the Raiders—sitting at 4-2 but having just lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone—made Brown, Lewis & Co. an offer they couldn’t possibly refuse, trading away a 2012 first-round pick (that became Dre Kirkpatrick) and a conditional 2013 second-rounder (that became Gio Bernard) to Cincinnati in exchange for Palmer. Hue Jackson, the current Bengals offensive coordinator who coached Palmer at Southern California and was the head coach of the Raiders in 2011, referred to the Palmer swap as the “greatest trade in football.”
In retrospect, while likely not the greatest, the trade does appear reasonable in the sense that it’s not crazy talk to deal two starters for Palmer, who remains an elite quarterback when he’s a) healthy and b) has proper weapons around him—which wasn’t the case with the Raiders. (Palmer was later shipped to Arizona in April 2013 for the football equivalent of two sticks of gum.)
The intensity of the Palmer-Bengals narrative leading up to Sunday night’s Bengals-Cardinals tilt felt a bit strange to me. After all, Palmer had already played the Bengals before in an opposing uniform. The former Cincinnati quarterback returned to PBS with the Raiders on Nov. 25, 2012. It didn’t go well. The Bengals jumped out a 24-0 lead and won 34-10. Palmer barely completed half of his 34 pass attempts, turned the ball over twice, and was sacked on four occasions. (There was also a was a fourth-quarter brawl that resulted in three ejections, with Bengals tackle/ejectee Andrew Whitworth endearing himself to fans of Bengals football and matrimony alike with his postgame remarks.)
In any case, instead of time healing all wounds, the bygone years seemed to reopen the scars left from Palmer’s split from Cincinnati. It was clear Palmer, Whitworth, and another anonymous Bengal haven’t forgotten what transpired.
Palmer was clearly a little too jacked up at the beginning of Sunday’s game. He was walloped by one former teammate (Michael Johnson) on the game’s second play from scrimmage, sacked by another ex-comrade (Geno Atkins) five plays later, and then picked off by another former co-worker (Leon Hall) on the very next play. Two drives later, Palmer was intercepted— by, you guessed it, another former Bengals teammate—in Reggie Nelson.
But Palmer settled down after a rough first half. He began the third quarter by guiding the Cardinals to three successive touchdown drives and then piloted the team 70 yards in six plays in just over a minute to position the hosts for the game-winning field goal.
Healthy again after tearing the same knee ligament last November that was shredded by Kimo von Oelhoffen nearly 10 years ago, the 35-year-old Palmer still throws perhaps the game’s prettiest and most effective deep ball. And when he needs to, Palmer can still dial up the mph on his fastball to deliver the ball into tight spots.
The stats back up Palmer’s renaissance. Playing for a coach/play-caller in Bruce Arians who loves to the chuck the ball downfield, Palmer leads the NFL in yards per attempt. He is also tops the league in touchdown passes, and is second in passing yards and quarterback rating. (Palmer is on pace to establish career-bests in TD passes and yardage.) Along with Tom Brady and Cam Newton, Palmer is a certifiable MVP candidate.
As for Cincinnati, a week after the Bengals laid an egg in a Monday Night Football loss to the Texans and Andy Dalton went the PC Principal route in his response to the lamest, whitest trash talk from J.J. Watt in the history of lame, white trash talk—seriously, I’m hoping White Trash Talk President Larry Bird didn’t catch wind of this exchange—Palmer and the Cardinals sent the Bengals to their second straight setback Sunday.
Deep breaths, everyone.
If you were Primetime Narrative Person at the office today, shame on you. The Bengals didn’t lose to the Cardinals because of an aversion to luminous light fixtures; they lost because they committed 10 penalties, the offense took most of the third quarter off, and because backup-to-the-backup defensive backs Chris Lewis-Harris and Josh Shaw played 25 snaps due to injury attrition in the secondary.
Like other divorced couples in this country, Palmer and the Bengals will always have a common bond. And every once in awhile, they’ll run into each other. It’s possible the next meeting could have a little more on the line than bragging rights.