In 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals emerged from a long stretch of bad football.
That year, Cincy won 11 games, the most wins for the franchise since a 12-4 season in 1988 led to an appearance in Super Bowl XXIII.
Playing up to his lofty potential, third year quarterback Carson Palmer paced the Bengals with nearly 4,000 yards passing and an NFL-high 32 touchdown passes.
— Cincinnati 💔 (@CincyProblems) October 10, 2020
Cincinnati then hosted its first playoff game since 1990 and looked to defeat division rival Pittsburgh.
On the Bengals’ second play of the afternoon, Palmer dropped back and threw a beautiful 66-yard pass to receiver Chris Henry.
The cheers were short lived as viewers across the nation noticed Palmer writhing in pain on the turf.
A Pittsburgh defender had barreled into the quarterback just as he released his pass.
The impact resulted in a serious knee injury that nearly ended Palmer’s career.
After rehabbing, Palmer spent five more years in Cincinnati before stops in Oakland and Arizona.
Despite his horrific injury in 2005, Palmer ended his career as one of the most effective quarterbacks in NFL history.
This is the story of Carson Palmer.
Quarterback in the Making
Carson Hilton Palmer was born on December 27, 1979 in Fresno, California.
⭐ Heisman Trophy Winner
⭐ 1st overall pick [2003 Draft]
⭐ 3x Pro-Bowl
⭐ NFL Touchdown Leader [2005 with 32]
⭐ Cardinals Ring of Honor
⭐ USC Trojans #3 retiredpic.twitter.com/0GRbe8pfD0
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 27, 2021
His future as a quarterback was assured by the time Palmer was in middle school.
He was rapidly growing into his eventual 6’5” frame and had the arm strength to boot.
Palmer’s father, Bill, recognized a good thing when he saw it and enrolled his son in private tutoring sessions with quarterback guru Bob Johnson.
Johnson taught the 12-year old Palmer the finer points of being a good signal caller.
“Playing quarterback is not like going to the park and shooting baskets,” Bret Johnson (Bob’s son) said in 2012. “You need an education. These kids who came to us, they didn’t know what they were doing. They don’t know the difference between a Cover 2 and a Cover 3. They think they do now, because of video games, but they’ve actually got to live it.”
The Palmer family then relocated to Rancho Santa Margarita, California, and Carson played football and basketball for Rancho Margarita High School.
As a freshman for the Eagles, Palmer turned heads during football practice with his pinpoint throws and his otherworldly velocity.
He won the program’s Eagle Award that year and continued working his way up the depth chart.
Palmer was named the Eagles starting quarterback before his junior year in 1996 and promptly set the world on fire.
That year Palmer threw for 2,084 yards, 24 touchdowns, and six interceptions and broke a number of school records along the way.
He led Rancho Margarita to the state title and passed for 245 yards and three touchdowns against Newport Harbor during the contest.
College coaches took notice when Palmer was named All-California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), All-State, All Orange County, All-League, and was a preseason All-American before his senior year.
Furthermore, Palmer never missed a chance to improve his game and took part in the Reebok Combine in May of his junior year.
He left the event as the number one rated quarterback prospect in the nation.
As if those accolades weren’t enough, Palmer was even better in 1997.
His senior year stats of 2,195 yards, 26 touchdowns, and four picks brought more broken records, a collection of awards, and a second state title.
— SANTA MARGARITA (@SMCHSEagles) October 24, 2022
When the smoke cleared from his short prep career, Palmer owned no less than 27 school records and had his jersey number retired by Rancho Margarita.
Nearly every major college football program in the nation wanted him, but Palmer chose to stay close to home and become a USC Trojan.
USC head coach Paul Hackett didn’t wait long to get Palmer into his first game action.
Although he was just a freshman in 1998, Palmer began the year as a backup before starting the final month of the season.
The Trojans went 8-5 as Palmer threw for 1,475 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions.
Carson Palmer, USC (1998-02) pic.twitter.com/oiuJcapGXt
— collegefootballguy (@cfootballguy24) August 21, 2019
In 1999, Palmer started the first two games and was developing nicely as a college quarterback.
USC went 2-0 in those contests, then lost Palmer for the rest of the season when the Oregon Ducks broke his collarbone on September 25.
Thankfully, Palmer was able to redshirt the remainder of the year and come back strong in 2000.
He stayed upright and passed for 2,914 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions.
After the Trojans’ 5-6 season, Hackett stepped down as coach.
Just weeks after Hackett left the team, the school hired former college and NFL coach Pete Carroll.
Carroll successfully recruited quarterback Matt Cassel, but the starting job was still Palmer’s.
The Trojans were in a rebuilding year in 2001 and went 6-6 while Palmer threw for 2,567 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 12 picks.
At that point, Palmer had had a decent college career but his four year output didn’t meet his outsized expectations.
Those expectations would be realized in 2002.
After the team began the season 3-2, Palmer and the Trojans went on a tear.
3 days until USC football!
#3 Carson Palmer amassed 11,388 yards and 71 TDs at USC. Palmer's final regular season game v #7 Notre Dame solidified his Heisman run.
— Nico (@USC_Nico) August 23, 2023
While the quarterback passed for 3,942 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, USC won the rest of their games, including a defeat of seventh ranked Notre Dame in which Palmer crushed the Irish defense with 425 passing yards.
In the Orange Bowl against third ranked Iowa, Palmer passed for 303 yards and a touchdown as the Men of Troy pulled away for a lopsided 38-17 victory.
He was named the game’s MVP.
Palmer’s ‘02 stats brought him recognition including consensus All-American, first-team All-Pac-10, Pac-10 Co-Offensive Player of the Year, Sporting News Player of the Year, the Pop Warner Trophy, and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Trophy.
Congratulations to Carson Palmer on a tremendous career!
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) January 2, 2018
Palmer is still second on USC’s list in both categories.
In 2021, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
First Overall Pick
In 2003 the Cincinnati Bengals were in desperate need of a field general.
The previous year, the franchise suffered through a 2-14 record and the presence of three quarterbacks under center.
They included Gus Frerotte, Akili Smith, and Jon Kitna.
With the first overall selection in the 2003 NFL Draft, the Bengals took Palmer.
April 26, 2003
Bengals draft Carson Palmer in the first round. He helped lead the team to its first winning season and playoff appearance in 15 years and was named to two Pro Bowls.#CincinnatiFootballHistory pic.twitter.com/kf0uSMfMR3
— Bengal Jim’s BTR (@bengaljims_BTR) April 26, 2023
Additionally, the team kept Kitna and got rid of the rest.
During the ‘03 season, the Bengals started Kitna and left Palmer on the bench to learn the pro game.
Surprisingly, Cincinnati improved with Kitna at the helm full time and the quarterback led the team to an 8-8 record and NFL Comeback Player of the year recognition.
Since it’s hard to justify paying someone over $42 million and not play them, Palmer took over the reins in 2004.
The results were promising, though Palmer had his moments, such as throwing three interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3.
“You can’t get greedy,” Palmer said after the game. “When you’re a young quarterback, you get greedy, and I have to fight that temptation. You need to develop patience. When something isn’t there, you don’t just throw it up in the air.”
Cincinnati ended the season with another 8-8 record and Palmer wrapped his first year as a starter with 2,897 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, and 47 rushing yards with a score.
Palmer Takes the Bengals to New Heights
After 15 years of futility, the Cincinnati Bengals were ready to experience a modicum of success in 2005.
Cincy opened the 2005 season with four straight wins and hit their bye week at 7-2.
With a year of pro football under his belt, Palmer was on fire in ‘05, completing nearly 68% of his passes (which led the NFL), throwing for 3,836 yards, a league-leading 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.
— TodayInSports (@TodayInSportsCo) October 24, 2018
He was also the first Bengals signal caller to end a season with a quarterback rating over 100 (101.1) and his peers selected the quarterback to his first Pro Bowl.
By the end of the regular season, Cincy was the talk of the NFL as the franchise went 11-5 and qualified for the postseason for the first time since 1990.
Bengals management was so impressed with Palmer’s play that the team extended him on December 29 for six additional years through the 2014 season.
The full value of his contract was worth $118.75 million over nine years.
“Hopefully this is the last place I’ll end up playing,” Palmer said. “That’s so rare in this league these days. It’s so rare to see a person have a 5-, 8-, 10-, 12-year career in one place. And I feel very fortunate that it looks like that’s going to be my future.”
Ten days after Palmer signed his huge extension, the Bengals hosted AFC North Division rival Pittsburgh for a Wild Card date.
As the AFC’s sixth seed, Pittsburgh had something to prove, but the Bengals weren’t planning on rolling over and having their rival stop their date with destiny.
On Cincy’s first drive and second play of the day, Palmer took a snap and spied Chris Henry open downfield.
He let fly just as Steelers tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into Palmer’s left knee.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) November 15, 2020
Henry caught the ball for a 66-yard gain, but Palmer remained on the turf writhing in pain.
Eventually, he was carted off the field and swiftly taken to a nearby hospital for tests.
Kitna entered the contest and tried to keep the Bengals afloat.
He did his best to stake the team to a 10-0 lead through the first quarter, but the Steelers proved too much and ended Cincy’s dream season with a resounding 31-17 win.
Bengals fans were already mourning the loss when they received even more bad news.
Von Oelhoffen’s hit had torn Palmer’s left ACL and MCL, displaced his knee cap, and caused damage to cartilage and his meniscus.
The injury was so severe that initially doctors believed Palmer’s career was finished.
To make matters worse for the Bengals organization, Pittsburgh would continue its improbable march through the playoffs and end up winning Super Bowl XL against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Thankfully, Palmer’s injury wasn’t as severe as the doctors originally feared.
As soon as he could, the quarterback began rehabbing his knee in the hopes of returning in time for the 2006 season.
The pain in his knee was almost as painful as the fact that the Bengals had missed a golden opportunity in 2005.
“We had it all laid out in front of us,” Palmer said in 2006. “The Super Bowl could have been ours. I felt like I had deserted them.”
By late May of ‘06, Palmer was jogging and attacking rehab with the singular focus of meeting the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1.
“That’s what keeps me going,” he said. “I know that if I take a couple of weeks off I’m not going to be ready to play September 10.”
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Palmer couldn’t hold back his contempt for the Steelers, especially since Pittsburgh was responsible for putting him out of action.
“I hate them,” Palmer said of the Steelers. “I hate them even more than I hate UCLA. Yeah, it’s because I’m jealous and I want what they have. I guess I’m just not that evolved.”
Palmer’s teammates noticed how hard he was working at his rehab, but also worried that the quarterback might try and return too quickly.
“Man, he’s looking pretty good,” said Houshmandzadeh, “but you wonder–even if he’s cleared medically, do you sit him the first four games, then have him come back after the bye week? That’s just being smart about it. You don’t want to risk his whole career for one season.”
Palmer’s devotion to rehab and to his teammates helped him in meeting his goal.
As he predicted, Palmer was ready for opening day and started all 16 games for Cincy in 2006.
He looked rusty at times, but played his way into a monster season that included 4,035 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 13 picks.
The Bengals went 8-8 but Palmer was voted to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
In 2007, Palmer had 4,131 yards, 26 touchdowns and an NFL-high 20 interceptions.
This is probably an unfavorable opinion, but 20 years ago the @Bengals drafted Carson Palmer with the number 1 overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft. The relationship between the Bengals and Palmer has been strained as of late, but it may be time to move past the disdain for one… pic.twitter.com/ZIXlKYg800
— WHODEY Jake (@WHODEY_Jake) May 19, 2023
However, even with a good offense, Cincy continued to get worse and fell to 7-9.
The bottom fell out in 2008 when Palmer was done after four games with a torn ligament and tendon in his throwing elbow.
He missed the remainder of the season to rest his elbow and chose not to have Tommy John surgery to fix the problem.
Back to the Playoffs
By 2009, the Cincy roster had undergone some significant changes.
In 2008, Palmer’s younger brother, Jordan, was drafted by the organization in the sixth round and served as Carson’s backup.
Chris Henry had been released due to off-field issues and died tragically in late 2009.
Rudi Johnson was gone and Cedric Benson took his place.
Chad Johnson was now known as Chad Ochocinco.
Preseason analysts didn’t give the Bengals much of a chance in 2009 and were shocked when the team responded with a 10-6 record and first place in the division.
— SportsTalk 790 (@SportsTalk790) February 10, 2022
Palmer passed for 3,094 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 13 picks and rushed for three more scores while leading Cincy back to the playoffs.
Hosting the New York Jets in the first week of the postseason, the Bengals were disappointed once again when the Jets advanced with a 24-14 upset.
Palmer Leaves the Queen City
Before the 2010 season, the Bengals brought in former 49ers, Eagles, and Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens as another deep threat.
Owens would bag 72 receptions from Palmer and the quarterback delivered nearly 4,000 passing yards and 26 touchdowns.
It didn’t seem to matter as a porous offensive line and a leaky defense led to a 4-12 record.
After the season ended, Palmer approached team owner Mike Brown about trading him.
— theScore (@theScore) January 31, 2020
He also let the owner know he was considering retirement due to the constant beating he took.
“We sat here in the office on a couple of occasions and argued about what the future should be for him and us,” Brown said. “Whether he really believed it or not I rather doubt. But my argument then with him was, ‘You’re a top quarterback and you’ve got real productive years in front of you.’ “He would say to me, ‘Oh no. I’m all beat up. I’ll be lucky to play another year or two,’ which I didn’t take to heart.”
Brown had no intention of trading his quarterback and Palmer had no intention of playing for the team.
“Because of the lack of success that Carson and the Bengals have experienced together, Carson strongly feels that a separation between him and the Bengals would be in the best interest of both parties,” said Palmer’s agent, David Dunn.
As the impasse continued into the spring of 2011, Palmer told the team he wouldn’t be reporting for organized team activities or training camp.
With little choice, Cincinnati selected TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Palmer continued his holdout through the beginning of the season and Dalton started in his place.
By the end of Week 9, the rookie had led the Bengals to a 6-2 record and it was clear that Palmer was no longer needed.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, the Raiders had just lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell and needed a veteran immediately.
— NFL (@NFL) October 18, 2011
The team reached out to Brown who then traded his former quarterback for some draft picks.
Short Stint in Oakland
Palmer was out of Cincinnati, but his playing situation didn’t improve.
The Raiders were mired in mediocrity themselves, having come off an 8-8 record in 2010.
Even with a new signal-caller on board, the Raiders could do no better than eight wins again in 2011.
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 18, 2015
In 2012, Palmer started 15 games and passed for 4,018 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
With little offensive help outside of running back Darren McFadden and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland ended the year with four wins.
In April of 2013, Palmer was traded to the Arizona Cardinals.
New Life as a Cardinal
New Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was excited to get Palmer for the 2013 season.
After arriving from Indianapolis, the long-time coach began rebuilding the franchise and he wanted a good, veteran presence under center.
4/2/13 – The Cardinals acquired QB Carson Palmer and a 2013 7th Rd pick (DC Jefferson) from Oakland for a 2013 6th (traded) and a conditional 2014 7th (Shelby Harris), then signed Palmer to a 2yr, $16M deal. Arians named Palmer the starter, AZ's 7th since Warner retired (2010). pic.twitter.com/gHkmJ7fpd8
— Arizona Sports History (@AZSportsHistory) April 2, 2023
Palmer did well in his first year in the desert, passing for over 4,200 yards and 24 touchdowns.
However, he also tossed 22 picks and was sacked a career-high 41 times.
Arizona still won 10 games and gave its fans optimism entering 2014.
That year, the team won 11 games and then lost in the Wild Card round against Carolina.
Palmer missed a majority of the year after tearing his ACL against St. Louis in Week 9.
His injury occurred two days after Palmer signed a three-year $49.5 million extension with the Cards.
As he did in early 2006, Palmer rehabbed like a mad man and returned in time to start the 2015 season.
Arizona was ready to roll with a talented roster.
Palmer found his favorite receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, an astounding 109 times in ‘15.
He also passed for career-highs in yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35) against 11 interceptions.
Carson Palmer was 38-21-1 with the Cardinals (.642 winning percentage)
Palmer led the Cardinals to franchise records in wins and points in 2015.
He set franchise records with 4,671 yards passing and 35 TD passes that season. pic.twitter.com/UBeff6I6Mg
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2018
Palmer’s stats led to his first All-Pro nod and he was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2006.
The Cardinals benefitted by winning 13 games, the most in franchise history.
In the divisional round, Palmer and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers battled all day before Arizona emerged with a 26-20 overtime win.
One week later, the Carolina Panthers ended the Cards’ season with a lopsided 49-15 victory in the NFC Championship game.
The next two seasons were a disappointment as Arizona couldn’t sustain its success and won only seven games in 2016 and eight in 2017.
Palmer had another good year in ‘16 when he passed for 4,233 yards and 26 touchdowns.
His 2017 ended after two months when he sustained a broken arm in Week 7.
After 15 years and a number of significant injuries, Palmer announced his retirement in January of 2018.
During his career, he passed for 46,247 yards, 294 touchdowns, and 187 interceptions.
— Ryan Nordquist (@CoachNordquist) January 3, 2018
Palmer also accumulated 474 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
At the time, his passing yards and touchdown marks were both good for 12th all-time in NFL history.
Palmer was a one-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, NFL passing touchdowns leader once, and NFL completion percentage leader once.
He exited the league as the first quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards or more with three different teams.
Palmer also owned a number of Bengals and Cardinals records as well including the first Cincy signal caller to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season, most Bengals touchdown passes in a game with six, most passing yards in a single season for the Cardinals (2015), most passing touchdowns in a season (2015), and highest passer rating in a season (104.6 in 2015).
In 2019, he was inducted into the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor.
Life in Retirement
Since retiring, Palmer has lived a quiet life in Idaho with his wife, Shaelyn, and four kids.
He occasionally appears in television, radio, and podcast interviews and spends the rest of his time enjoying the great outdoors.