Locking up Carson Palmer is right move now — and beyond

TEMPE, Ariz. — When I first wrote that I thought it was the right move for the Arizona Cardinals to extend quarterback Carson Palmer three weeks ago, he was still on the mend from a nerve injury, not yet back to 100 percent.

His future could’ve gone one of two ways at that point: He could’ve not fully recovered from the axillary nerve contusion in his throwing shoulder and, at 34, been close to a real retirement. Or the rest of this season could’ve unfolded exactly as it has.

Since mid-October, Palmer’s performance has reaffirmed my belief that locking him up long term, as the Cardinals did Friday afternoon by signing him to a three-year extension worth $50 million, was the right move for him and the franchise.

This goes without saying but Palmer is the best quarterback the Cardinals have had since Kurt Warner retired after 2009. Forget his age for a minute, but if Palmer is able to win games at the rate he has, why wouldn’t the Cardinals bring him back?

Palmer is undefeated this season, 12-2 in his past 14 games dating back to Week 8 of last year — the best record in the league during that span — and 15-6 with the Cardinals, the best start for a quarterback in the franchise’s modern era.

While Warner was good, if Palmer leads the Cardinals to a playoff run — even the Super Bowl — this season and does it again next year, he should be considered the franchise’s best quarterback ever, at least since they’ve been in Arizona.

The stability he’s brought to the team has produced a season not seen by the Cardinals since the 1970s — a win Sunday and this would be the first time the Cardinals have been 8-1 since 1948. A lot of that has to do with coach Bruce Arians, but his scheme can only go so far. He needed a quarterback who could execute it. He found that in Palmer, who fits the physical mold of an Arians-style quarterback but with the savvy of a veteran. What we’re watching happen this year — the league’s best record at 7-1, Arizona sitting atop not just the NFC West but the overall NFC — is a product of Palmer understanding the offense, which was a major issue for the Cardinals a year ago.

And he’ll only get better. As I wrote a few weeks back, why throw that all away? At this rate, if Palmer can stay healthy, and with how Arians and general manager Steve Keim can turn over a roster, the Cardinals can be a playoff contender as long as Palmer remains in the lineup.

With just next year guaranteed, the Cardinals are protecting themselves from injury or a decline in production. But if Palmer can give them another year — maybe two at best — and then hand the keys to Logan Thomas in 2016 or 2017, would this extension still be worth it? Yes.

In October, I listed reasons to be skeptical of keeping Palmer around: He’ll be 35 in December, he threw 22 interceptions last season, he missed three games with a nerve injury, and his arm wasn’t what it used to be.

As he closes in on a month shy of his 35th birthday, Palmer’s shown he’s still able to be more productive than he’s been in years. He’s doing it with smarter play and a mobility that has jaws dropping seemingly weekly. Maybe it’s the maturity that accompanies being in the league for 12 years and in his mid-30s.

He’s also cut down on his interceptions, throwing just two in five games, a direct result of understanding the offense. While his shoulder hasn’t been tested like it was in Week 1, Palmer has shown that it’s not a major concern anymore even if he’s 10-for-26 on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air this year, but just 6-for-18 since Week 6. He’s still on pace for 3,601 yards and with the help of a couple big games, he could hit 4,000 yards for the third straight season.

Even if he’s not taking as many deep shots post-injury, Palmer has figured out ways to win. At the end of the day, that’s all the Cardinals need out of a 34-year-old quarterback.

And that’s what they’re getting.

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