So, after a preseason that ranked just ahead of the Vikings and Cowboys on the quarterback calamity scale, the Arizona Cardinals are in the process of shedding the doldrums of August as well as the chaff of their roster and will begin preparations in earnest for their season opener against fellow conference runners-up, the New England Patriots, next Sunday night at “Here’s My College Degree”, Sort Of, Stadium.
On one hand, the Cardinals seem to be facing the Patriots in idyllic conditions. Tom Brady is suspended, for refusing to bend the knee at the alter of Roger Goodell. It’s the first game of the season, so Bill Belichick won’t have as much game film to scheme for as he normally would. Arizona will be at home, and healthy, with even Tyrann Mathieu expected to participate after shredding his knee last December.
The Patriots will have Jimmy Garoppolo, a first-time starter, under center but won’t have Dion Lewis, their most talented running back, who’s on the PUP list with a bum knee or wideout Danny Amendola, who may also be a PUP-list candidate. They’ll also be missing Rob Ninkovich, one of their best pass-rushers, due to a PED-related suspension.
Speaking of pass-rushers, the match-up will offer us the opportunity to make a snap judgment on the Chandler Jones deal. Jones, who led the Pats with 12.5 sacks last season, was dealt to Arizona for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick in last spring’s draft. The Cardinals seem to have already upgraded at guard with Evan Mathis, who won a Super Bowl with Denver last season, and they definitely needed an edge rusher.
If Jones can give Garoppolo a proper introduction into the league, by introducing him to the turf at rapid speed, then they’ll look like aces in the trade. If Jones turns out to be a non-factor in the game, well, we might see one of Belichick’s grin after the game.
The real story here will be the fragile, vulnerable psyche of the quarterback who is not Garoppolo. Sure, it might seem like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is an unproven understudy to the legendary Brady while facing a four-game audition not just for the Patriots but 31 other teams, but it’s actually Carson Palmer who’ll have more to prove, at least on Sunday.
He’s coming off a postseason where he threw six interceptions in two playoff games, including four in Arizona’s blowout loss at Carolina. And while Garoppolo has been superb this preseason, Palmer’s struggled miserably.
It’s hard to look at Palmer without thinking about what happened to Jake Delhomme a few years back. He threw five interceptions for a 12-4 Panthers team in a 33-13 upset loss to the Cardinals in January of 2009 and spent the following preseason insisting it was just one bad game, unfortunate sure but not something that would haunt him forever. He then threw four more picks in the opener at home against the Eagles, a 38-10 loss.
Delhomme started 10 more games for Carolina, with a record of 4-7, and he finished with eight touchdown passes and 18 interceptions on the season. He started four games for the Browns the next year, with two touchdown passes and seven picks, and that was it.
Palmer’s defenders can say that his preseason struggles mean nothing, that he was just as bad last August before putting together an MVP-caliber campaign. We’ll find out one way or another real soon, but there are, oh, 30 coaches that’d be better to face than Belichick for a veteran quarterback looking to prove he’s not chasing ghosts.
Palmer doesn’t have to outplay Garoppolo or even win, but he can’t be the obvious reason they lose. Not in Week 1, not in a nationally-televised game. There’s just no coming back from that.
Add it all up and the stakes and consequences seem quite formidable for Palmer and the Cardinals in what will be -by far- the marquee tilt of the Week 1 slate. Never has a season-opener carried such weight, especially for a veteran quarterback of such experience and pedigree. The operative lesson, as always: Even when it looks like it’s the perfect time to play the Patriots, there’s never a good time to play the Patriots.