The Green Bay Packers came after Carson Palmer hard on the first play from scrimmage in last Sunday's NFC's Divisional Round game. If momentum exists in NFL games, the Packers must have thought they had it—Aaron Rodgers had just thrown a shocking hail-mary touchdown to set up overtime, which is the sort of play that the more mystically inclined NFL fans see as a heartbreaker.
On that first play of overtime, Carson Palmer evaded the Green Bay blitz long enough to complete a 75-yard catch-and-run to Larry Fitzgerald, which set up a game-winning touchdown two plays later. The key to the play was a nifty spin move from the 36-year-old quarterback to elude linebacker Mike Neal. When Palmer was asked about it, for the team website's weekly "Film Room" breakdown, his explanation was honest, if not particularly substantive.
"I don't know where that came from," he said. "But I'm glad it happened."
The same phrase could very easily be applied to Carson Palmer's 2015 season. A quarterback is not supposed to do the best work of his career in his 12th season. He is not expected to lead the league in DVOA, and by a wide margin, after returning from a torn ACL in his mid-thirties. He is not counted upon to make the leap to bonafide MVP candidate, at a time when many of his peers are struggling just to stay on the field. It's a season that may earn Palmer the Comeback Player of the Year award, and a story that anyone can savor, even if it's not so easily understood.
Which isn't to say that people aren't trying to understand it. Bleacher Report's ace tape-watcher Cian Fahey diagramed Palmer's uncanny ability to recognize pressure, move just well enough to find small pockets in the defense, and deliver the ball in perfect harmony with his receiver's routes back in November. Though Palmer will probably never dazzle with his downfield running ability, he is just athletic and sturdy enough to evade punishment and allow his receivers time to go to work, even with that rebuilt knee.
Of course, having the right receivers helps. According to figures at NFLSavant.com, passes to Larry Fitzgerald, who enjoyed a renaissance season after moving into the slot, have been completed 71.43% of the time, the highest percentage for any wideout in the league who's been targeted 100 times or more. (He was targeted 154 times this season, good for 10th among all wideouts.) Fitzgerald, who coincidentally entered the league the same year as Palmer, may not have the same explosiveness he once possessed—working out of the slot, Fitzgerald had a career low of 11.1 yards per reception this year—but his legendary hands have never betrayed him, and Palmer relied on him; Fitzgerald had a career high 109 catches this season.
And while Fitzgerald has remade himself into an ace slot receiver, Michael Floyd and John Brown were consistent downfield options; both ranked in the top-20 in the league in yards per reception. Rookie burner J.J. Nelson, who did not have enough targets to qualify for the leaderboard, averaged 27.2 yards per catch. This collection of weapons enabled Palmer to complete 64.6 percent of his passes on 3rd-and-long and to lead the league with 8.51 yards per passing attempt. No quarterback does anything on his own.
Which is not the story that's going to be told about Palmer's season, because that's not how the NFL discourse works. The story, which is not an unfair or incorrect one, is instead about just how hard Palmer worked to recover from the second ACL tear of his career. He told CBS' Pete Prisco just how rabidly he attacked his rehab process, beginning just days after surgery. He spoke to NFL Network's Andrea Kramer about IVs, vitamin packs, and "flushing the bad blood" out of his system. And he explained to Sports Illustrated's Austin Murphy how he used the injury as an opportunity to rebuild his throwing mechanics and immerse himself in Bruce Arians' playbook.
It's not a new thing for athletes to speak of returning better than ever from a serious injury. But Palmer's hours in the gym and all that grueling, repetitive, monotonous work, would likely not be much talked about had the Cardinals regressed this season. The story is better when he's winning, and the story being told on Palmer's behalf is a good one—that his love for and dedication to the game carried him through, and that hard work finally unlocked the full pro potential of the man who won the Heisman trophy more than a decade ago. It's just only as true, or as compelling, as Palmer's play can make it.
The NFL's very essence is order, and structure, and routine; what can be quantified is quantified, and what can't be is understood according to a narrow script. With Palmer's late-career breakout, though, half the fun of it is not having an explanation. Two years ago Palmer was discarded and dismissed; when he was dealt to the Cardinals for a sixth round pick after a miserable season in Oakland, it seemed like a familiar career endgame was in progress.
It wasn't, of course. While we have the film and the numbers to explain his comeback, there's something to be said for letting Palmer tell the story of how, at long last, he reached the pinnacle. With a season like this one, he's earned that much. We don't need to know where it came from. We can just watch.