Even after turning the ball over three times Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals found themselves with an opportunity to steal a victory against Los Angeles at home in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 17-13 after a go-ahead score by the Rams, Arizona had the ball and an offense that had already proven it could pick apart Los Angeles' defense through the air as the Cardinals had amassed more than 275 passing yards. Then, disaster struck.
On his 38th drop back of the game, Cardinals' quarterback Carson Palmer was crunched in the pocket on a sack by Rams' defensive linemen Eugene Sims and Aaron Donald that forced Palmer to retreat to the locker room to enter the league's concussion protocol.
Immediately, 10th year veteran and Cardinals' backup Drew Stanton knew he was taking the reins of the Arizona offense, with an opportunity to win the game.
"He's (Palmer) the toughest guy that I've played with and you're kind of back there and you're used to seeing him bounce up," Stanton said. "As a quarterback, you're sitting there watching the coverage trying to be able to see things and you don't always know what's going on but when I saw him get up I knew that I was going to go in the game."
Stanton entered Sunday's contest with 12 career touchdown passes and 16 interceptions, and his tendency to force the ball into tight windows came back to haunt him almost immediately. On Stanton's first drive, he tossed an interception over the middle to Rams' linebacker Mark Barron on what could have been a game-sealing interception.
However, instead of trying to return the ball, Barron went down to a knee, the Rams' offense went three-and-out, and Arizona got the ball back with about a minute to play and a chance for Stanton to redeem himself.
Even after costly Los Angeles penalties helped advance Arizona's possession, Stanton's final throw of the game was picked off in the end zone by Rams' safety T.J. McDonald, ending any hope of a Cardinals' comeback.
"It's my job so it's frustrating to come in there and not have success," Stanton said. "It's unfortunate to let this team down and this organization and the fans and we're much better than that."
Stanton didn't look sharp in the final minutes of the contest, but few backup quarterbacks would have been able to enter Sunday's game and lead a team with its back up against the wall to a victory. Stanton's entrance Sunday was equivalent to a pinch-hitter coming off the bench cold and needing a home run to propel his team to a win, except for the fact the pinch-hitter hadn't played in a game that counted in more than eight months.
Stanton should have another opportunity at redemption this week though, as Arians said it would be difficult for Palmer to return in time for Thursday evening's road game in San Francisco. When asked how the opportunity to prepare as a starter would change Stanton's approach this week, the Michigan State product said it wouldn't.
"The same as always, I think the preparation and everything will take care of itself," Stanton said. "You get ready to play mentally and do all of those things, it's unfortunate that we're coming off of a short week but that's the way this league is built."
This offseason, the Cardinals rewarded Stanton with a two-year contract worth north of $4 million to serve as the team's lifeline behind Palmer. While Arizona ultimately hoped it was wasted money and Stanton would never have to earn his paycheck on the field, the Cardinals were faced with a harsh reality Sunday.
Now, the organization should have the chance to find out exactly what Stanton offers the team, as a 1-3 Arizona squad enters a pivotal division showdown in desperate search of a victory. While head coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals aren't pressing the panic button just yet, a loss Thursday might mean it's finally time to sound the alarm.
"We need to come back to work and win a football game, that's all it is," Stanton said. "That's one thing that BA (Arians) has preached from day one is the process, and that's what's gotten to me and this situation and so many of us to where we want to be at the end of the year and that will take care of itself."null