With a litany of player injuries, the Arizona Cardinals have traveled what head coach Bruce Arians described Monday as a “bumpy-ass road” en route to the NFL’s best record through Week 10.
But the latest pothole the franchise has hit — losing quarterback Carson Palmer for the rest of the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament — will probably bring this 8-1 ride to a grinding halt.
No disrespect to Drew Stanton. Maybe he will join the pantheon of backup passers like Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner and Earl Morrall, who helped lead their teams to Super Bowl titles when thrust into action. Stanton did come through with a 2-1 starting record earlier this year when Palmer was sidelined with a nerve problem in his shoulder. Stanton also helped lead Arizona to a 31-14 win over St. Louis Rams on Sunday after Palmer’s knee crumbled early in the fourth quarter.
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Arians had enough confidence in Stanton that he didn’t become more conservative in his play selection as he might have with a lesser reserve. Stanton rewarded such faith by firing a 48-yard scoring pass to wide receiver John Brown, one of three unanswered Cardinals touchdowns in the game’s final 12 minutes.
However, there is a good reason Arizona traded with Oakland for Palmer in the 2013 offseason even after signing Stanton as a free agent. The Cardinals initially told Stanton he would have the chance to compete for a starting spot. This promise was broken when Palmer became available.
Such a cold football decision was probably the right one. Since becoming comfortable in Arians’ complex offense midway through last season, Palmer resurrected his career and posted numbers that rank among those of the league’s best QBs. He entered the Rams game with a 12-2 starting record dating back to Week 8 of 2013. Palmer had thrown for 3,918 yards with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in that span as well.
Such production earned Palmer a three-year, $50 million contract extension that he fortuitously signed two days before getting hurt.
The Cardinals now turn to Stanton, a 30-year-old journeyman whose four career NFL starts before this season came in 2009 and 2010 while with the Detroit Lions.
Though nobody knows what Stanton can do over an extended period, at least he unquestionably has Arians’ support.
“We can win the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton,” Arians told Sports Illustrated following the Rams win.
At least there is some basis for Arians’ optimism. Stanton has played under Arians dating to the 2012 season, when both were in Indianapolis. The Cardinals also have outstanding skill-position players, one of the league’s stingiest defenses and excellent special teams led by a rookie kicker (Chandler Catanzaro) who tied an NFL record by making the first 17 field goals of his NFL career before finally missing on a 53-yard attempt against St. Louis.
But even with that strong supporting cast, this is a pass-first Cardinals team that expects the quarterback to carry the offensive load. Stanton must do this against a remaining seven-game schedule that includes fellow playoff contenders Detroit (7-2), Kansas City (6-3) and San Francisco (5-4) as well as two matchups against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (6-3).
After a 28-17 road victory over Dallas earlier this month, Arizona star cornerback Patrick Peterson posted a Tweet that included the #roadtoglendale hashtag. It’s a reference to Super Bowl 49 being played at the University of Phoenix Stadium that serves as the Cardinals’ home field.
It now falls upon Stanton to see how much of a detour Palmer’s loss causes and whether Arizona can continue following its map to the Lombardi Trophy without him.