Healthy Palmer has Cardinals’ offense humming

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Sometime Jan. 3 or 4, after the Arizona Cardinals team plane had returned home from a playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers, head coach Bruce Arians popped into his office, stared at his depth chart and, right then and there, started moving names around.

“I went in and took the depth chart and put all the guys that were on IR back on the board and said, ‘This is going to be a pretty good team next year,’” Arians said Wednesday during a conference call with Detroit reporters.

“I tried to get excited about next year.”

Next year is right here, and one of those names Arians put back on the board — quarterback Carson Palmer, lost for the season last November with an ACL injury, after leading the Cardinals to an 8-1 start — is making Arians’ prediction a reality. Arizona comes to Detroit on Sunday with a 3-1 record, thanks to one of the best offenses in the league, averaging a whopping 37 points a game.

The Cardinals come at you both ways on offense, but Palmer’s play has certainly stood out, with a 106.4 quarterback rating that easily would be the best of a 12-year career that’s taken him from Cincinnati to Oakland and finally to Arizona.

Through four games, Palmer has completed 63.4 percent of his passes, for an average of 288.8 yards — also his career best.

“He’s lights out. He’s playing as good as probably anybody I’ve ever had,” Arians said. “He’s extremely accurate right now and he’s healthy, knock on wood. But he’s in his third year in this offseason and it’s not easy because we ask our quarterbacks to do an awful lot.

“He has a very good feel and command of it right now.”

Lions head coach Jim Caldwell agreed.

“Carson Palmer is playing as well as any point in time during his career,” he said. “And he’s had some great moments in his career.”

Arians was hired in January 2013, taking over a team that had posted two winning seasons since 1998, and the first splashes GM Steve Keim, also new at the time, made were first signing backup quarterback Drew Stanton, the former Michigan State star, and then trading for Carson Palmer from the Raiders.

Solidifying the QB position was a huge priority, and helped set the tone for the franchise’s new direction, Arians said.

“Those two guys legitimized the locker room for all of the rest of the players, that we were going to be OK offensively because we had quarterbacks,” Arians said. “If you don’t have one (a good one), you might as well not unpack your bags.”

Palmer led the Cardinals to a 10-6 season, just missing the playoffs, in 2013, and then was 6-0 as the starting quarterback last year before he was lost for the season with a leg injury. Days earlier, the Cardinals had signed him to a three-year, $50 million extension.

Under Stanton, the Cardinals still made the playoffs, going 3-4 down the stretch, before losing to the Panthers, 27-16, in the wild-card game.

Palmer is back after the second knee surgery of his career, and playing like he never missed a snap, putting up 31 points in the opener, then 48 and 47 the next two weeks, before stumbling to a 22-point output in last week’s loss to the St. Louis Rams.

It helps that Larry Fitzgerald is back, too — not from injury, but from a couple down years that spurred whispers that the great wide receiver was nearing the end. Not so fast. At 32, he has 30 receptions and five touchdowns through four games. Simililary, running back Chris Johnson, at 30, is having an incredible bounce-back season after slipping with the New York Jets last season.

“He’s playing like a young Larry!” Lions safety Glover Quin said. “And Carson Palmer, I don’t know if the injury last year gave him some off time to rest his arm up a little bit. Now that the arm is fresh, he’s got the cannon out.”

Palmer, by the way, is 35.

Receiver John Brown, the other significant standout on offense, is the odd duck at 25.

“Well, I like to think of Carson, Chris nad Larry as that real good fine wine,” Arians said. “They get better with age, you know?”