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Jones: What if Carson Palmer had become a Buc?

Carson Palmer, pursued by the Bucs in 20113, chose to go to the Cardinals because Arizona, unlike the Bucs, said he could start. [Steve Madden | Times]
Published Sep. 18, 2016

Oh, what might have been.

Greg Schiano would still be the Bucs' coach. Jameis Winston would not be the Bucs' quarterback. Who knows what would have become of Lovie Smith?

And there's no telling what Sunday would have looked like.

Here's what we do know: This afternoon, the Bucs take on the Arizona Cardinals and their quarterback Carson Palmer. Should be a good game with the Bucs looking to go to 2-0 against a solid team that made the NFC Championship Game last season.

But everything would be different today if just one little thing had happened a few years back. Palmer would still be playing in today's game. But not for Arizona. Instead he would be with the Bucs.

That, you can be sure, would have changed everything.

Palmer to the Bucs. It almost happened. And though we can't know for sure how it would have turned out, it probably is best for the Bucs that it never came to fruition.

Flash back to 2013. Palmer was looking to get out of Oakland. Several teams, including the Cardinals and Bills, were interested in acquiring the veteran quarterback. One other team was also sniffing around: the Bucs.

Tampa Bay was coming off a 7-9 season in Schiano's first as coach. Schiano wasn't crazy about his starting quarterback, Josh Freeman. Looking back, we now know Schiano was right to question Freeman's future. That's partly why the Bucs drafted Mike Glennon in the third round in 2013.

The relationship between Schiano and Freeman was fractured — fractured beyond repair, as it turned out.

Palmer intrigued Schiano. Why wouldn't he? Palmer was 33 and the 2003 first overall draft pick

who put up good numbers while dealing with a knee injury with the Bengals and the Raiders. He was coming off a 4,000-yard passing season and was the best quarterback on the market when Oakland, always looking for the Quarterback Du Jour, traded for Matt Flynn.

That made Palmer available, and Schiano saw him as the perfect fit for the Bucs.

One problem: Others inside the Bucs, going all the way to the top of the franchise, weren't ready to give up on Freeman.

The story goes that the Bucs made a pitch for Palmer on the condition that Palmer would compete with Freeman for the starting job. Palmer wanted a guarantee that he would be the starter. Tampa Bay wouldn't offer him that. Arizona would. So Palmer was traded to the Cardinals and signed a contract extension.

At the time, Palmer said, "My agent said that Tampa had been contacting him a lot. I would have been very excited to be there. Their organization has a lot of good players across the board, but like I said, I'm excited and happy to be where I am. I'm excited about our future."

Since arriving in Arizona, Palmer has gone 29-10 as the starter and helped the Cardinals to two playoff appearances in three years. Over that same span, the Bucs have gone 13-36 with no playoff appearances, four starting quarterbacks and three coaches.

But let's think about what might have happened if Palmer had come to Tampa Bay as the starter in 2013.

For openers, the guess is Schiano would not have been fired after his second season. Freeman, as Schiano predicted, was a disaster, and Schiano finally convinced the Bucs to get rid of him after an 0-3 start in 2013. Schiano then had no choice but to turn to a rookie (Glennon), who managed to win four games as the Bucs finished 4-12. The day after the season ended, Schiano was fired.

Palmer alone would have been good for more than four victories, and that likely would have saved Schiano's job.

Then what?

Well, if Schiano had stayed, then Lovie Smith would have never arrived. Smith, a coach with a good reputation and looking to return to the profession after being fired by the Bears a year earlier, probably would have jumped back into the game with another team — perhaps the Texans, perhaps the Lions.

Smith's 2014 Bucs featured the ugly quarterback duo of Glennon and journeyman Josh McCown. The two combined for a pitiful 2-14 record. If healthy, Palmer almost certainly would have led Schiano-coached Tampa Bay to a better record than that.

Or think of it this way: With a better 2014 record, there's no way the Bucs would have ended up with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. In other words, no Jameis Winston.

Oh, and with no Lovie, that would have meant no Dirk Koetter coming in as an assistant. And with no Dirk Koetter to promote after Lovie's firing after last season, that would have meant no defensive coordinator Mike Smith for this season.

So, to recap: If Palmer had come to the Bucs, that would mean Schiano could very well still be the coach but Jameis would not be the quarterback.

This is all speculation. Every team in the NFL could play the what-if game.

But if we had to guess, the Bucs would have been decent but never great with Palmer, who is now 36 going on 50.

Today the Bucs are decent but have a real chance to be great with the up-and-coming Winston, as well as Koetter.

At the time, it seemed like a bad move that the Bucs couldn't land Palmer.

As it turns out, sometimes the best moves are the ones that never happen.

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