Back in the spring, the Arizona Cardinals front office spent long days pondering quarterback options, very few of which were inspiring. They thought hard about bringing back Kevin Kolb but decided against it. Free agents such as Jason Campbell did not fill them with excitement, and potential high draft choices such as Geno Smith did not fill them with hope.
But there was this 33-year-old who intrigued them. He had high mileage, he had bounced around a bit and it had been four years since he had a winning record. The word was his best days surely were behind him.
Undaunted, the Cardinals worked out potential trade parameters with the Raiders. They brought the player in for a physical exam and then took him out to dinner.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim had a text on his cellphone. Carson Palmer, still an Oakland Raider, wanted to know if he could come to the facility to watch tape.
That's when Keim knew.
"I thought, here is this 33-year-old who people think is washed up," Keim said. "He's chomping at the bit to get over here first thing in the morning when he's not even on our team yet. That to me said something that this guy has a chip on his shoulder and is out to prove everybody wrong."
Nearly eight months later, Palmer was just named NFC Offensive Player of the Week after becoming the first Cardinal to ever pass for at least 300 yards, complete 70 percent of his passes and have a 110 passer rating in back-to-back games. Palmer has led the Cardinals to four straight wins and had a 110.8 passer rating in those games. Over that period, the Cardinals went from having the 29th-ranked offense in the NFL to the 16th-ranked offense.
The start was a little rough for Palmer and the Cardinals (through seven games, he had thrown 13 interceptions to eight touchdowns), but he is humming now. And it is clear he still has the ability to play at a high level.
"When I watched him in the offseason, I might have said he's not the guy the Bengals drafted 11 years ago," Keim said. "But I still felt when I watched the Raider tape, through the ups and downs, he was still a really talented pure passer who could drive the football. He still threw for over 4,000 yards and completed 61 percent of his passes on a team that struggled."
Keim's eyes told him Palmer could avoid pressure, which was significant. The Cardinals had given up 58 sacks a year ago, and they needed a quarterback who could minimize uneven pass protection. Playing behind a mediocre offensive line in Oakland, Palmer was sacked only 26 times. "That said something about his ability to process and get the ball out quickly," Keim said.
It also helped that Palmer, probably more than any other available passer, could do what new head coach Bruce Arians asks quarterbacks to do. "Bruce's system really caters to his strengths, particularly some of the deep-ball stuff," Keim said. "If you protect Carson, I have no doubt he is one of the better pure passers in terms of staying in one spot and making the throws in the vertical game with accuracy, timing and touch."
Chemistry also has developed between quarterback and head coach. Arians challenged Palmer from the start, expecting him to master the most complicated system Palmer has seen on short order. Through Palmer's early struggles, Arians rode him hard. "Bruce is demanding," Keim said. "He drives players to their limit. He has that unique quality where he can berate them, and at the end of the day they want to have Thanksgiving dinner with him because they love him."
It has helped Palmer that Arians is an exceptional play-caller, and that quarterback whisperer Tom Moore is riding shotgun. It also has helped that Palmer is throwing to the youngest player in NFL history to reach 11,000 receiving yards in Larry Fitzgerald, as well as another up-and-coming talent in Michael Floyd. One of the league's best defenses—buoyed by offseason acquisitions John Abraham, Karlos Dansby and Tyrann Mathieu—also has been a nice complement.
But the Cardinals would not be one of the NFL's hottest teams, as they start the stretch run with a trip to Philadelphia on Sunday, if not for the revival of Carson Palmer. His passing and leadership have been the difference in this team.
"Carson brought some instant credibility to the quarterback position, even though he has had his detractors out there," Keim said. "Regardless of who was available in free agency or the draft, he was our best opportunity to win and win now."
• One of the reasons Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan already has surpassed his career high in sacks, with 9.5 topping his previous high of eight set last year, is he wears down blockers. "He can play snap 53 just like snap eight," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He came in in great shape. He has a great motor. That stamina has been outstanding for him. He gets on an edge of an offensive player very quickly."
• Since quarterback Jake Locker was injured, the Titans have undergone an offensive overhaul on the fly. Going into the season, the team had only a modest package of no-huddle offense because Locker isn't very comfortable operating on the line of scrimmage. But his backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has done his best work in a no-huddle throughout his career, so the Titans have become mostly a no-huddle, spread offense.
They made the switch prior to their Thursday night game against the Colts, meaning players had four days to learn the new concepts and code words. Since then, the package has been expanded. The result, according to those in the locker room, has been an energized offense and a quarterback in a groove. It also has helped that the Titans have tried to highlight Fitzpatrick's accuracy in the short to intermediate game and asked him to make fewer of the vertical throws that Locker is more apt to make.
• Joe Flacco can complain all he wants about the Wildcat, but it isn't likely the Ravens coaching staff will stop looking for ways to spice up the offense. Why? They have the 29th-ranked offense in the league with Flacco under center. The staff did not use the Wildcat on Thursday, but the Ravens believe backup Tyrod Taylor gives the offense another dimension with his athleticism and running ability. His presence keeps opposing defenses off balance, so don't be surprised if he plays an expanded role in the Ravens offense going forward.
• NFL scouts say defensive end Robert Quinn of the Rams has quickly become one of the best all-around defensive players in the game. Quinn has absolutely been destroying offensive tackles, and he's been doing it pretty consistently. They say he's not just a one-way player—Quinn plays the run exceptionally well too.
The third-year player is only 23 years old, and Rams execs attribute Quinn's development to a natural maturation process. He has come quite a ways in terms of physical development and conditioning since the Rams drafted him 14th overall out of North Carolina. One more factor in his breakout, they say, has been the coaching of Mike Waufle. The defensive-line tutor was a key hire for Jeff Fisher and long has been considered one of the best in the game.
• On the subject of good coaching, opponents are crediting Lions offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn with the rapid and impressive development of guard Larry Warford. Like Warford, Washburn is a rookie of sorts. In his first four years with the Lions, he was an assistant line coach. He was promoted to offensive line coach in the offseason, and his impact has been clear. Warford was not as highly regarded as several other guards from his draft class, but he has performed as well as any of them.
• Finishing with a poor record may be more palatable to some teams this year than it is in most years, because the top of the draft is starting to look very attractive to NFL front-office men. One said he expects there will be about a dozen elite prospects, not including the quarterbacks. Another said there could be up to 18 "blues," or players graded as Pro Bowl talents. "A lot of years, we've had only four or six blues," he said. "You get itchy when you see all that talent."
Among the coveted non-quarterbacks are UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III, Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Remember the Name: Justin Hunter
It took 10 games, but Titans rookie receiver Justin Hunter finally showed he deserves a seat at the big boy table last week with a breakout performance against the Raiders.
The Titans knew what they were getting when they took Hunter in the second round—a raw player with the ability to grow. Hunter left Tennessee early and was limited by a serious knee injury. And at 6'4", his route running was not anything special.
What helped the Titans figure out what to do with him, according to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, was their experience with Randy Moss in 2010. "I don't want to say he's Randy Moss, but what he can do in a route tree is very similar," Loggains said. "Kendall Wright can run every route on the tree. That's not Justin. But there are things he excels at because of his length. He can do things most people can't."
Initially, the Titans didn't feel comfortable asking Hunter to run more than just a handful of routes—go routes and post routes. He was good at those because of his length and 4.36 40-yard dash speed. But Hunter has become capable of more over the course of the season as a result of hard work.
"He needed to develop the outside breaking route, the comeback, to be able to drop his hips and come out of the breaks," Loggains said. "His routes have really developed, and he's ready to play in all third-down situations. He doesn't have to have a huge route tree because of his speed and size and jumping ability. But if he has seven or eight routes, it will help him tremendously."
The result will be more opportunities—and probably more big plays—for Hunter.
With winter coming early in many parts of the country, and with the Super Bowl scheduled to be played in New Jersey in February, cold-weather quarterbacks have never loomed as large over a season.
So, courtesy of Stats LLC, these are the quarterbacks who are most likely to give their team an advantage if the temperature is freezing or colder:
Aaron Rodgers, Packers: The Packers can't get him back fast enough, in part because Rodgers has turned winter into a Green Bay advantage. They have won eight of the 11 regular-season games Rodgers has started in freezing temps. He has completed 64 percent of his passes in those games and has a passer rating of 110.3.
Tom Brady, Patriots: He has won 83 percent of his starts in cold weather (15-3), compared to 77 percent of his starts in temperatures above 32 degrees (129-39). Brady's cold-weather passer rating is 95.9.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: He's heating up now, and it may not be coincidence. Roethlisberger is 12-5 with a 102.1 passer rating in regular-season games at 32 degrees or colder. His yards per attempt in those games is 8.6, compared to 7.7 in other games.
Philip Rivers, Chargers: Surprise, surprise. He's only played two regular-season games in freezing temps, but his passer rating in those games is 104.8.
These quarterbacks, meanwhile, are more likely to be adversely affected by cold weather based on their past performances:
Peyton Manning, Broncos: He has a 3-4 regular-season record in games played at 32 degrees or colder. His passer rating is 78.6 in such games, compared to 97.2 in other games.
Eli Manning, Giants: Perhaps it runs in the family. Eli is 2-4 in freezing temps with a 67.5 passer rating.
Jay Cutler, Bears: Despite calling Denver and Chicago home, his passer rating is 74.8 and his record is 4-6 when the temperature is 32 or below. In other games, Cutler's passer rating is 85.4 and his record is 51-40. Cutler has thrown 14 interceptions in freezing weather—more than any other active quarterback.
Alex Smith, Chiefs: He has a 73.2 passer rating and a 1-2 record in cold-weather games.
Joe Flacco, Ravens: He has the rep as a cold-weather QB, but his regular-season passer rating when it's 32 or colder is 76.6.
• FTW says Ed Reed wants Fireman Ed to come out of retirement. Having Reed join Fireman Ed in retirement might help the Jets more, though.
• Two Bears fans decided to have a footrace on a sidewalk in the heart of Chicago's nightlife district. The race ended violently when one of the fans collided with a lamppost:
The Bears immediately tried to sign the lamppost to play defensive tackle.
• The Seahawks promise to police the fans at CenturyLink Field more effectively than they have policed the players in their defensive backs room.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.