Carson Palmer knows what it's like to be the savior. In 2003, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Palmer, fresh off winning the Heisman Trophy at USC, to turn their franchise around. The hopes and dreams of a city hinged on his performance.
In his second full season as the Bengals' starter, Palmer threw for 32 touchdowns and nearly 4000 yards in leading Cincinnati to its first playoff appearance in 15 years. But just two plays into their first round playoff matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Palmer's left knee met Kimo Von Oelhoffen's helmet, shredding his ligaments.
Palmer fought his way back through rehab and was able to start the 2006 season, but was clearly never the same quarterback. The Bengals would reach the playoffs just once more during Palmer's tenure with the Bengals.
Palmer held out during the 2011 preseason, hoping to force Bengal owner Mike Brown's hand into trading or releasing him. Eventually, Brown worked a deal that sent Palmer to Oakland where Palmer went 8-16 in a season and a half as the team's starter.
Now Palmer, at age 33, is in Arizona still trying to fulfill the promise of being the first overall draft pick. That's why he can relate to Sam Bradford.
Bradford won the Heisman after his sophomore season at Oklahoma. He also suffered a season-ending injury, although his was to his shoulder and occurred while he was still in college. Still, the St. Louis Rams selected Bradford with the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, pinning their hopes of resurgence on his right arm.
Like Palmer, Bradford responded, taking the Rams to the brink of the NFL playoffs his rookie season. He missed much of 2011 with an ankle injury, but had a solid season in the Rams' 7-8-1 campaign a year ago. Still the questions linger for Bradford.
Most have already written the epitaph on Palmer's career. He was a "good" NFL quarterback, but injuries and circumstance prevented him from ever becoming all he was promised to be. Unless Palmer has a Jim Plunkett-like resurgence in Phoenix, that will be his NFL legacy.
Bradford is trying to avoid the same fate. Heading into the fourth year of a five year initial contract, Bradford realizes that his time is now. As the last first round quarterback signed before the new collective bargaining agreement, he realizes that his value to the Rams is dependent on his ability to get them to the playoffs, if not beyond. St. Louis won't be giving Bradford an extension on this deal without some degree of post season success.
Without that, Bradford will be another first rounder turned free agent. Like with Palmer this past off season, commentators and coaches will wonder about "what might have been." They'll work him out, have doctors ensure that he's physically up to the task, and then decide whether or not he's worth the risk. That's a far cry from the promise of draft night.
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