STATELINE, Nev. — Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off an ugly performance in the NFC Championship Game in January. It was a rough end to what had been the best season of the 36-year-old Palmer's career.
As he spent a late July weekend playing in the American Century Championship golf tournament, Palmer took some time to talk about the upcoming season with Bleacher Report. Specifically, he discussed how he maintains focus after 13 years in the NFL and with the end of his career drawing near.
Bleacher Report: John Elway, who had to wait until the end of his career to win a title, was able to keep coming back from a lot of frustration early in his career. He talked about being able to keep his focus all the way to the end. Do you talk to people like that about how to stay focused as you—I hate to put it this way—get closer to the end of your career?
Carson Palmer: Hey, that's the reality of it. I have played golf with Elway and been around Elway, but he hasn't said anything about that. But I think that's one thing you learn as a quarterback: focus. The better you are at focusing and the more you can continue to stay focused for a four-hour stage and really be zeroed in on what is happening, the better you play, the longer you play.
You just don't have a feel for that when you're young; you don't really understand how important every play is. The longer you play, the more you realize that you can't lose focus for one play or two plays or an entire drive. Those things are the difference between wins and losses. You have to figure out how to refocus after a bad play or how to stay focused when you're up in a game. Those are things you learn from experience in playing this position. I've learned a ton of ways and have different triggers for how to regain my focus if I've lost it.
B/R: Is there one thing you can share about one of those triggers?
CP: My brother had a good point. You remember that "Easy" button commercial? It's a Staples commercial, and you hit it and all of a sudden whatever you need appears. It's such a big part of the game that people don't talk about, and now people are starting to get into mental coaches and stuff. But I just look at the [play] clock, pretend there is an "Easy" button on top of it and push it. If I ever feel like, "Hey, we're up by 21 points," and I start looking for my kids in the stands, if all of a sudden we get the ball back and I have to refocus, I look for that play clock and hit that button. I just look at the top of the play clock and just envision the "Easy" button. I mentally hit that, and I'm back in the zone.
B/R: So, it sounds a little like the mental focusing device Kevin Costner dramatized in For Love of the Game?
CP: I don't really remember that. It's probably similar to that. But to me, it's more like I'm talking to my receivers about this, I'm talking to my coaches about that, I'm giving [head coach] Bruce [Arians] some things I like. You have all these thoughts in your head, and you can't be thinking about that when you walk on the field. I have all these things going on, you're up by a bunch of points, and it's just a way to like [Palmer breathes as if to relax and focus].
B/R: Get focused on the situation.
CP: Yeah, I've got 1st-and-10. Let's get a completion. If this isn't there, I've got my back in the flat. It just re-centers your focus.
B/R: When did you and your brother talk about that and get it figured out?
CP: Two years ago, my brother and I talked to a bunch of guys. Again, a lot of people are using these mental coaches, and we got this guy involved. My brother had interviewed a bunch of them, and I had talked to a handful of guys. But he had come up with this concept with another mental coach. Like everything, you dilute it and come up with something that works for you because there are all these things you can do—you find two or three that you like.
I met with a couple of guys who had come up with things like that. Some of it didn't really work. It didn't hit my brain the right way; it didn't work for me. But I really like the "Easy" button mentality to re-center yourself. You're talking about Kevin Costner being in the zone, and that's not really it—not that you're in the zone and you're untouchable. It's more about focusing your mind and getting it to what you need it to be on. "I should go on two on this next play. It's 1st-and-10, we've got a run and I'm going to get to this if we get this look." As opposed to thinking about 20 different things, it's just this one play.
B/R: Was it easy for you to pick up?
CP: No, it was something I had to start working on in training camp. Especially in training camp is a good time to use it. It's so easy to be like, "Oh, we have a three-hour practice, and I have 40 reps in team, and I have 26 reps in seven-on-seven, and I have 12 in..." As opposed to thinking about it like that, I force myself to think about every play. Here's the "Easy" button. OK, I know it's the first play of seven-on-seven. I know the depth of the linebackers; they are going to get a lot of depth, so I should probably take my checkdown. It's training yourself to focus.
B/R: Instead of saying, "This is the 8,000th practice of my career."
CP: Exactly. Instead of, "Oh, it's Week 3 of training camp. I want to go home and sleep in my own bed." It's a way of saying this one play is so important. No, it's not really, but it's a way to refocus on that play. It's a way of saying, "Yes, this is important." It's difficult. It's really difficult, but it's great training.
B/R: How long did it take you to get it down?
CP: It's still not perfect, but I did it every day in camp, and I got more and more comfortable with it as camp went on. But it's something I'm doing every day. I'm doing it today on the golf course. I hit a bad shot and worked on hitting the "Easy" button. There are different ways of doing it, but this works for me.
B/R: It sounds like a way of keeping things fresh also.
CP: Exactly. I'm going into my 14th training camp. At the end of the day, it's another play of seven-on-seven. I've run four [vertical pass routes] 3,000 times in my career. It's easy to drop back, look the safety off and throw the seam, but that's not preparing yourself for the game. It's more about, "Hey, make this practice rep as close as you can to a game rep." You have to be focused instead of saying, "I have four verts against single high." You know what I mean? I have done it thousands of times in practice and hundreds of times in games. This is just a way to make that practice rep as game-like as you can.
B/R: It sounds like a great way to work, especially after all these years.
CP: It gets very monotonous. I get very bored at practice because I have run curl-flat a million times, or slant-drag. There are so many parts of the game that have become so routine that you can let it bore you, and that's not good.
B/R: A fellow sportswriter once said to me, "There are only so many ways to write that a runner scored from second base on a single to right."
CP: Exactly. Exactly. We have done this so many times.
B/R: So, Bruce Arians—I get the feeling that he's the perfect coach for a guy like you and your skill set. True?
CP: He's a really good coach for not a young quarterback.
B/R: Yeah, but he was good with Andrew Luck.
CP: Yeah, but anyone is good with a quarterback like Andrew. Eh, that's not fair to say. Bruce was good with Andrew, but he's really good with a vet. He says things that are over—maybe not Andrew—but over the head of first-, second- and third-year guys. It's just a quick zinger. It's not a seven-sentence-long explanation of what you should have done or how this was good. It's a quick four- or five-word thing. My first year with him, it was like, "Wait, what? What did he say?" Now I've really started to understand what he means and why he's saying what he's saying, and a lot of it's because I'm in Year 14.
B/R: Example? And give me something printable because I know Arians is not always printable.
CP: [Chuckles.] No, it's nothing like that. A certain play will come up against a certain defense, and I just threw a 35-yard completion and he'll say something quick like, "You should have done [this]." It was a fire zone, the hook defender got way too much depth, the shallow route is an easier completion and it gets it to a faster guy.
He'll say all that in a couple of words and not have to break it all down to me. He'll say it where it hits me and makes the point, like, "Hook to the shallow." I've started to pick up on that, and I really understand that and I can see where young guys wouldn't get it. They'd say, "Hey, I just threw a 35-yard completion. What are you talking about?"
B/R: So, he might say, "Shallow under faster guy"?
CP: Yeah, "Shallow under: Ball's out quick. Faster guy: Get the ball to J.J. [Nelson] in space; he runs a 4.2[-second 40-yard dash]." That's what he means to say as opposed to, "That was a really nice throw to the tight end up the seam, and it was really good, but this one you have to just [throw an easy pass]."
B/R: Is David Johnson as much of a monster as people think he's going to be?
CP: I think he's going to have a great year. He's still young, and I think young guys go through some stuff. But I think he's poised to have a big year, and he's been working hard. He's everything you want in a back. He's big, he's fast, he catches the ball really well, he'll block anybody. He's the complete package.
B/R: So the combination of three receivers you have now, the tight end, the running backs—how does that compare to what you had in Cincinnati earlier in your career? What you had back then was pretty good with guys like Chad Johnson.
CP: We had Chad and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudy Johnson...man, it's such a different system, so it's hard to say. It's totally different. Those guys were so good, but when we're in so much empty, two-back, one-back. We don't even have a fullback on the roster. Skill set-wise, it's really, really similar.
Chris Henry was a really special player. Chad was a special player. T.J. was special, and T.J. and Chad were really experienced when Chris came on. We have Larry [Fitzgerald], and we have a lot of young guys. Smoke [John Brown] is still young. J.J. is in his second year. Mike Floyd is in Year 4. These are some young guys who still have some growing to do. But the potential is through the roof.
B/R: Speaking of potential, Floyd has a lot.
CP: No doubt. He has been down in San Diego with me. He's had a phenomenal offseason. I'm excited about him. To be in a contract year like he is—he's not the focal point, but there is no focal point in this offense. There's no guy who is going to catch 96 balls in this offense, so he's in a very interesting position to have a huge year and average 16 or 17 yards a catch because of where he plays and the routes he runs. He's not running hitches and slants. He's running digs and comebacks. He's stretching the defense, where Larry is working the underneath stuff. Larry is working against linebackers and guys like that. So, Mike is in a good spot.
B/R: Arians said recently that it took time for Fitzgerald to be comfortable with learning how you think, getting on the same page with you.
CP: It's still a work in progress. It has gotten so much better, but if we were in Year 10 together, we'd still be working on body language and me seeing what he is seeing, both pre-snap and post-snap. That's not something where you ever say, "OK, we got this." We run option routes 20 times a practice, and that's not boring or monotonous. That's because you get zone, you get man, you get different leverages. There's so much that goes into me reading his body language and knowing which way he thinks he's going to break so it comes out on time. That's a continual work in progress.
B/R: You played against both Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu for a long time in the AFC North. I know Tyrann Mathieu is not as big as either of them, but can you compare those three?
CP: Tyrann is so different from them in size. He's obviously closer in size to Ed, but Ed played a totally different position. Ed roamed the middle of the field. That's not Tyrann. Troy was 225 pounds. Tyrann is 180. But if he plays like either of them, it's Troy because he plays down closer to the line of scrimmage. What makes him similar to Troy—and Troy is unlike anybody I have ever played against, and I saw it every day in practice at [Southern California]—is Troy can go from zero to full speed in two steps. You don't see that. I haven't seen that.
Troy could be on a backpedal breaking on a route, and he ran 4.3 after the second step. He was so explosive in such a short area, and Tyrann has that. He's just so quick and so explosive, and he's at top speed like that [Palmer snaps his fingers], where most guys it takes four or five steps for them to get to whatever their break is.
B/R: The other element of Mathieu that impresses people is he is nothing like what he was perceived to be in college—irresponsible and out of control. He doesn't get into trouble, he's dedicated to his craft, he's socially responsible, he's helping teammates…he's the person Arians thinks will be the face of the franchise soon.
CP: The media's perception of him couldn't have been more wrong. I don't know what went on there. I don't care what went on there. I have not seen what I thought I might see from what I read about him. He's a great teammate. He is super-involved in the community. Any teammate's charity event, he's at the charity event. He works hard. He practices hard. You can't judge a guy by what you read about him. You have to be a teammate to really see who that person is, and over the past three years, he is A-plus. He is the total package. He is so different than what anybody expected, and it has been a pleasant surprise.
B/R: So, when Arians says he can be the face of the franchise…
CP: He's already close to it. It's hard to say Larry is not and [Patrick Peterson] is not, but Tyrann is right in there for it.
B/R: Arians said your finger was not a problem. You say it was not a problem. So as you look back at the NFC Championship Game, what accounts for that performance?
CP: It was just the perfect storm of a game. It was just one of those games. Seven or eight minutes into the game, you're down 17-0, and it feels like it's 35-0. Again, it's just a perfect storm of bad things that happened. There was plenty to learn from and plenty to move on from.
B/R: How do you keep it from lingering?
CP: It is what it is. You have to move on. I'm fortunate to still be playing and get another chance to go play again. It's not something in my head, but I think everybody realizes it's a new season, it's a new team. What happened last season in Week 19 or 15 or 12 or 2 is irrelevant to this season. It's not a focal point of this season or this team.