Surely, though, one of the reasons to bring in the experienced and big-armed Palmer was to make sure another season of sublime wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald didn't go to waste.
Fitzgerald, a seven-time Pro Bowler and the third overall pick in the 2004 draft, may be headed to the Hall of Fame. He's got over 10,000 receiving yards and 79 touchdowns, he's broken the 100-catch mark in two separate seasons and the 90-catch mark in three others. His per-season average from 2007-11 was roughly 93 catches for 1,296 yards (13.9 per rec.) and 10 touchdowns.
Last season, with the Cardinals' rotating cast of QBs, Fitzgerald caught "only" 71 passes for 798 yards and four scores. Yes, those are still good numbers, but they are also his worst ever in a full 16-game season (he had fewer catches as a rookie but more yards and TDs). Fitzgerald turned 30 just before the start of the 2013 regular season, and there's no reason to believe he's lost a step.
Enter Palmer (and his excellent career average of 7.2 yards per pass attempt), and you have the start of what the Cardinals hope will be a beautiful relationship. Despite a relatively slow start for Fitzgerald, in terms of yards, Palmer still thinks he's formed a quick bond with his new number-one receiver.
“It’s been great," said Palmer, who has actually spread the ball around almost evenly between Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd. "Obviously we want to see some more production, but it’s been great. We’ve really come together really fast and gotten on the same rhythm and on the same page. When the ball is going to his side of the field, it’s been completed just about every time it seems like.”
The new quarterback was imported by the new head coach, Bruce Arians, who brought in a reputation as a play-caller who liked to air it out. Arians says that's a misconception, but doesn’t deny that the combination of Palmer and Fitzgerald offers quite a bit of big-play potential.
“It’s fun," said Arians. "You’re trying to get the ball up the field, whether it be a short pass, long run, the ball doesn’t really have to be in the air that long. I think the press is [who] named me, ‘The Long-Ball Guy,’ but I don’t like standing back there, holding it, and throwing it deep. I like throwing it short and getting it out and running fast and making plays down the field. We will take our shots down the field, but they don’t have to be 50-yard balls. I think, with Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh, those things led to this reputation, so I’m cool with it. But, yeah, we want to take our shots, but we also want to be very smart with the ball.”
The 33-year-old Palmer didn't have his best season with the 4-11 Raiders in 2012, as even Arians admits, but he's only one-year removed from a 4,108-yard campaign in which he completed more than 61% of his passes and had a passer rating of 85.3 that nearly matched his career average. He was one of the league's more productive quarterbacks in Cincinnati for seven years and is closing in on 200 career touchdown passes. The Cardinals didn't bring Palmer in specifically to throw deep to Fitzgerald, but because they thought he could make all the throws.
“The players always make the system," said Arians. "You don’t ask players to do things they can’t do, and you try to put them in positions to be successful, that’s really what coaching’s all about. It’s not having a scheme and then pounding square pegs into round holes. We feel like Carson can do everything that we want in our offense, and we have to do a much better job of protecting him and run the football better.”
Palmer has thrown for 254 yards per game through his first three outings as a Cardinal, but he's been picked off four times and the Arizona offense is ranked 23rd in yards and 25 in points. Coming off a seven-point performance in New Orleans, the Cardinals want to get the offense cranked back up in second straight NFC South town, but they don't expect the Bucs' rising defense to make it easy. For one thing, Tampa Bay is tied for third in the NFL with 12 sacks and Palmer has already been dropped nine times.
“They’ve been showing a lot of different things, they’ve come from a lot of different areas, from the secondary, from the linebacker position," said Palmer. "They’re not overly big but they play physical and they play fast. They show a lot of different looks and a lot of different fronts, it’s not easy to tell what’s coming and when. When you don’t know for sure and they don’t give away where it’s coming from, they come so quickly. It’s just a good combination of speed [and] athleticism. The pass rush is very quick, they do a lot of stunts, they do a lot of games, they’re very tenacious upfront.”
And, of course, if Palmer wants to find that critical connection with Fitzgerald on Sunday, he's going to have to do it against the best efforts of all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis. Arians said that Fitzgerald has been slowed by a hamstring injury recently but was running at full-speed against the Saints last weekend. Revis, meanwhile, appears to be back to his old self after recovering from the knee injury he suffered a year ago while with the New York Jets.
"They ought to put on a show," said Arians. "They can’t cancel each other out, nobody wants to see that. I think they’ll both win some, lose some. We have to be smart in where we attack. The one thing we have done with Larry is obviously move him around a lot more than he ever has in the past."