GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Carson Palmer may have toyed with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, albeit after getting spotted a two-touchdown lead before producing his first scoring drive, but the Arizona Cardinals' 35-year-old quarterback has certainly faced his share of daunting opponents during his long and largely underappreciated pro football career.
In Palmer's mind, however, his most formidable foe never recorded a sack or an interception against him, and in fact was not a team but a single man: Bengals owner Mike Brown, with whom Palmer engaged in a Take This Job And Shove It staredown that provoked the quarterback's premature retirement and, eventually, abrupt departure from Cincinnati four seasons ago.
While Palmer has since reestablished himself as a top-tier quarterback for a deceptively dangerous Cardinals team, he believes the residual effects of that clash with Brown -- Palmer essentially told Brown he'd rather quit than play another down for the Bengals, and had his bluff called for nearly a year -- have contributed to an overly negative perception of his abilities among fans, analysts and even talent evaluators within the NFL community.
"I took an owner head-on, you know?" Palmer told me as the two of us stood at his University of Phoenix Stadium locker following the Cards' 47-7 thrashing of the Niners, which gave Arizona (3-0) a two-game lead in the NFC West three weeks into the season. "That's shunned in this league, and people don't like it -- and the NFL definitely doesn't like it. That's hurt me a lot, and I've been bounced around pretty good since it happened."
Those who haven't been paying attention see Palmer as a journeyman on the downside of his career, someone who is commonly cited as having represented the inferior end of one of the more maligned trades in recent NFL history.
Yet to the people who've gotten a first-hand glimpse of Palmer's desert-based revival over the past three seasons, he's the lionized leader of a legitimate Super Bowl contender -- and one of the best quarterbacks in football, period.
If Tom Brady has been the NFL's most prolific passer through the first three weeks of the 2015 campaign, Palmer isn't all that far behind. He put forth another commanding performance on Sunday, completing 20 of 32 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns -- and won his ninth consecutive game as a starter.
Now, at long last, he's winning over some of the skeptical coaches and personnel executives around the league who believed Palmer was, at best, a stopgap solution at quarterback for a franchise that endured three seasons of misery following Kurt Warner's retirement in January 2010.
"I think they're starting to figure it out," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said just before leaving the locker room. "I think for awhile there, no, they didn't [appreciate how good he is]."
There certainly wasn't a huge premium on Palmer's services when Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, who had just hired Arians to replace Ken Whisenhunt, targeted Palmer as the team's quarterback in the spring of 2013. Mindful that Palmer, who'd rebuffed the Oakland Raiders' requests to take a pay cut, was viewed as expendable, Keim swung a trade that still provokes smiles at the team's training facility.
The Cards swapped a sixth-round pick in that April's draft for the Raiders' seventh-rounder and threw in a conditional seventh-round selection in 2014, which they gladly surrendered after Palmer started all 16 games in 2013, three more than the agreed-upon threshold.
That's pretty remarkable, given that the Raiders, in order to pry Palmer away from the Bengals and lure him out of retirement midway through the 2011 season -- and to persuade Brown to, in essence, blink first and give in to a player intent on forcing his way out of town -- surrendered a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-rounder the following year.
Referred to at the time by then-Raiders coach Hue Jackson as "the greatest trade in football," it was later lampooned almost universally as a horrible move that set back the franchise. I could spend a lot of time explaining why that perception is largely erroneous, as I have in the past, but let's just put it this way: In retrospect, is dealing the picks that led to the acquisition of recently-promoted Cincinnati starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (17th overall in 2012) and Bengals backup running back Giovani Bernard (37th overall in 2013) for a true franchise quarterback that much of a reach?
To a man, Palmer's teammates, coaches and bosses would say, Hell no. Consider that in his last 18 starts, Palmer has completed 398 of 618 passes (64.4 percent) for 4,962 yards, 36 touchdowns and 14 interceptions -- and has won 16 of those games.
"He's big, he's strong, he's accurate and he can make all the throws -- and he's playing absolutely great," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald, another revived veteran who had a monster day (nine receptions, 134 yards, two touchdowns) against the Niners. "Now he's with a coach who really believes in him, and Carson's completely in command."
Said veteran running back Chris Johnson, who carried 22 times for 110 yards and two TDs on Sunday: "He's incredible. The way he prepares and calls out blitzes and knows what's going on out there, you can just tell how advanced of a quarterback he is."
Perhaps the greatest measure of Palmer's value to the Cardinals was illustrated beginning last November, when he went down with a torn ACL for the second time in his career. At the time, Arizona was 8-1, with backup Drew Stanton having gone 2-1 when Palmer had been sidelined by a shoulder injury earlier in the season. Eventually, the Cardinals lost Stanton to a season-ending knee injury, wheezed into the playoffs with an 11-5 record and, with Ryan Lindley at quarterback, were held to an all-time postseason low of 78 total yards in a 27-16 first-round defeat to the Carolina Panthers.
Now, once again, Palmer is healthy -- and the Cardinals look even more formidable than they did at this time a year ago. They've outscored their three opponents in 2015 by a ridiculous 77-point margin, by far the highest in the NFL, and their defense scored 16 points alone against the overwhelmed Niners, with Colin Kaepernick throwing a pair of pick-sixes among his four interceptions.
Palmer also threw an interception late in the first half, though Kaepernick kindly served one up 23 seconds later to set up a 22-yard Chandler Catanzaro field goal as the second quarter expired. When Palmer somehow fit a 4-yard pass into a tight window -- and Fitzgerald expertly hauled it in amid traffic for a touchdown early in the second half -- the quarterback was awash in his newfound "football heaven," a term employed by tight end Jermaine Gresham, recently acquired from (you guessed it) the Bengals.
"He's pretty [expletive] good," Gresham said of Palmer, with whom he was teammates in Cincinnati during the 2010 campaign. "I think he can be even better."
Said Arians: "Oh baby, he's playing great. He should throw a couple away sometimes, but other than that ..."
When I told Palmer I planned to write about his high level of play -- some of which may still be lost upon coaches, talent evaluators and peers -- he laughed and said, "It's cool. I'm too old to let it go to my head, 'cause I know it goes away real fast if you start to struggle.
"But playing here is awesome. It's as good as it gets. It's one of the classiest organizations to play for -- everything is done right. We were good last year. We've gotten a lot better since then on offense, and that's pretty exciting."
It's especially exciting for a player who took on an owner and endured to tell about it, who has successfully bounced back from a second severe knee injury and who, throw by throw, is laying waste to all that worst trade in NFL history talk that followed his arrival in Oakland.
"No, me coming here was the best trade ever, at least for me," Palmer said, laughing, before heading to the shower. " 'Cause we didn't give up anything, and I'm so happy it worked out the way it did."
Rest assured, he has plenty of company in the Valley of the Sun -- even if a lot of people on the outside haven't caught on quite yet.