The season for the Cardinals has been over for several weeks, but a huge part of their future still hangs in the balance. As Super Bowl LI approaches and most teams are deep in planning for 2017, Arizona's brass still don't have an answer on whether quarterback Carson Palmer or wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will return for 2017 or retire.
Both are contemplating walking away and have been for some time. Neither has told the team if he plans to return, though both Palmer and Fitzgerald have had frequent conversations with coaches and team decision-makers about it, sources said.
There is no hard-and-fast deadline, but the team wants to know by the middle of February to collaborate on plans entering free agency, considering the monetary impact would be significant. Key team people think both will come back, but that might be based on hope. The reality is, few know. There have been no guarantees.
Last offseason, Fitzgerald told KMVP-FM that the two stalwarts walking away together is something to consider. On his future, Fitz said, "A lot of it's tied to Carson."
In fact, a source informed of Fitz's thinking said that if Palmer walks away, it might be harder for Fitzgerald to return unless he knows who will replace Palmer.
Fitzgerald is due to make $11 million in 2017, while Palmer is set to make $17.5 million in salary and bonuses. Both signed contract extensions in August, but neither deal is expected to impact any retirement decision. If the money is freed up, the Cardinals would have the cash to go get a veteran quarterback such as Tony Romo or Mike Glennon.
If he does retire, Fitzgerald, 33, literally will go out at the top of his game -- his last catch was a touchdown and he has a string of 195 straight games catching a pass. He was the NFL's season leader in receptions with 107. As for Palmer, he'd cap off a career that included him figuring prominently in the resurrection of the Cardinals.
None of this is a surprise. In September, Fitzgerald was telling friends he expected 2016 to be his last year, and he was planning like it. As of December, he was still mulling over whether he will return. Palmer has been much more vague, saying only that he expects to keep playing, but he hasn't made a definitive decision.
Both are more than set financially, having made more than $100 million each during their careers.
If Fitzgerald walks away, he'll do so with a bright future off the field. He's also a Walter Payton Man of the Year finalist, meaning he could retire at the top of his game on and off the field. The Man of the Year honor will be awarded at NFL Honors on Saturday. Fitzgerald clearly could play several more years if he wanted to.
As for Palmer, 37, this was the most physically trying season of his career, per sources. He's tired, worn down and trying to see how his body responds. He still loves the game, but he's been through it all. Can he handle another season?
Another factor in Palmer's decision is that Cardinals quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens is now a running backs coach and the new QBs coach -- Byron Leftwich -- is someone Palmer hasn't worked with, according to someone who knows Palmer well.
One prominent general manager believes, from watching Palmer this year, that he has played his last down. Two prominent coaches believe so, too, as do several evaluators. Many people close to Palmer say he doesn't know. No one knows for sure.
If Palmer walks away, he'll likely do so quietly. Fitzgerald will probably be a public face for years to come.
Either way, whether that happens should be known sooner rather than later.