Best Linchpin in Sports 2015 | Carson Palmer | Fun & Games | Phoenix

In today's NFL, if you don't have a good quarterback, you can't compete on any level, much less make it to the playoffs or win the Super Bowl. The Cardinals have had good seasons over the past two years, and the reason they weren't great was quarterback play (and, of course, playing in the same division as the Seattle Seahawks, who won the title following the '13 season). Carson Palmer was no slouch during the '13 season, passing for 4,274 yards on 362 attempts, but it was his first year playing in coach Bruce Arians' system. By the '14 season, Palmer had the system down; the team's offense started to click, but Palmer went down with a knee injury in the sixth game, after throwing 11 touchdown passes well before the middle of the regular season. Backup quarterback Drew Stanton filled in admirably until he, too, got injured. The Cardinals turned in an 11-5 record, but — forced to play with a third-string QB — were embarrassed by their one-and-done performance in the playoffs. Which is why Palmer is the linchpin to the Cardinals' success this season. After winning the Heisman Trophy at USC and getting picked first in the 2003 NFL draft, Palmer played the bulk of his pro career for mediocre Cincinnati Bengals teams. Now's he's on a team that has all the components to challenge the Seahawks for the division title, and if they succeed (because Seattle has been the best team in the NFC), this should mean a berth in the Super Bowl. Palmer has all the tools: He was the only NFL quarterback to beat the Seahawks on their home field when he was healthy in '13, leading Arizona to a 17-10 victory.

Brad Ziegler is an animal, a machine, something crazy good. Placed in the role of closer for the Diamondbacks this season, he has excelled. But the veteran relief pitcher always has, at the Oakland A's and in Arizona. He's so good that he once was labeled as the most dominant pitcher in baseball by the ESPN online magazine Grantland. The headline of its story last year read: "He began his MLB career with a historic streak and has dominated ever since, yet he's toiling in anonymity. Why? It starts and ends with how he throws the ball." That is, submarine-style, a low sidearm delivery during which his throwing hand winds up about a foot off the pitcher's mound. Grantland argued that his seemingly goofy style is why he isn't taken seriously. But when you bore down on said style, you see that Brad Ziegler — whom few outside the two cities whose franchises he's toiled for know anything about — has (at this writing) an earned-run average of 2.48 over eight seasons, which makes him — despite his unorthodox style — the most successful pitcher of his time. At just before midseason, his 2015 ERA was 1.36 with 12 saves. And he started out untouchable, throwing 39 scoreless innings for Oakland before giving up a hit. Consistency is his middle name, and he does it because of his silly delivery, not in spite of it. It's damn hard to hit pitches that come at you with the crazy "stuff" that Z creates for anything other than groundball outs. In fact, his pitches are hard to hit at all — he'd also posted 327 strikeouts during his career. Yet he's an extreme longshot to make the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The Suns lost in their bid for superstar power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, but they improved their fortunes nevertheless by acquiring veteran center Tyson Chandler to go along with 22-year-old former University of Maryland center Alex Len. Both at 7-1, the two complement each other in that they are good defenders, Chandler one of the best big-man defenders in the NBA. Signed to a four-year $52 million contract by the Suns, Chandler anchored the Dallas Mavericks defense last year, averaging 11.5 rebounds a game, in addition to having the second best field goal percentage in the league at 67 percent. He's somebody coach Jeff Hornacek's Suns team long has needed: a center who can score in the paint, as attested to by his 147 dunks, third best in the league. Published reports say Len, who has turned out to be one of the best young centers in the NBA, is happy that he will be mentored by the veteran. In his second year as a pro, Len emerged in the second half of last season as the Suns' starting center, averaging 6.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22 minutes per game, but he still shared big playing time with two other big men. Combining Chandler's other attributes with his 10 points per game, the two should be one of the league's best one-two punches.

First of all, these guys know what they're doing. Steve Berthiaume is an ESPN veteran who's chosen to bring his homespun, everyman talent to our (by comparison) boondocks, and Bob Brenly is a former catcher who was manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks' World Series champion team.

What we love about these guys is that, though they're employed by the team, they're not homers. When the team does something crazy, they point it out. When a player has a bad game, they are on it like pine tar on George Brett's ancient bat. Berthiaume's Cup of Coffee show, where he interviews players, is great. In his inoffensive way, he really gets into the TV heads of players, and even bosses like the legendary Tony La Russa. And Brenly's just a breath of fresh air, when compared to predecessors in the team's broadcast booth and to color commentators for our other pro sports franchises, who border on bush league most of the time. Berthiaume's got quite a broadcasting résumé: He was a SportsCenter anchor and anchored Baseball Tonight. He also worked for the New York Mets' network and covered University of Connecticut basketball for a Hartford television station. As for Brenly, he's been a D-backs manager and broadcaster, a starting catcher for the San Francisco Giants and an All-Star in 1985, and a broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. He knows everybody who's anybody in baseball. Brenly comes across as a great guy, but he doesn't mind offending an entire baseball position, as he did when he said pitchers really aren't athletes. This came up in a question from Berthiaume, who asked B.B. if he'd ever wanted to take the mound in a big-league game. D-backs management may not have returned the team to the limelight, but they certainly have professional broadcasters who're at the top of their games.

Bruce Arians knows the Arizona Cardinals inside and out. He coached against them in Super Bowl XLIII as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals, helmed by Kurt Warner at quarterback, were in a position to win that game, having taken the lead on a 64-yard touchdown reception by Larry Fitzgerald with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers, under Arians, marched 67 yards to the 6 yard line, and then Santonio Holmes, tiptoeing just in-bounds, made a spectacular catch falling out of bounds to knock the Cardinals out of its first Super Bowl 27-23. Though the Holmes play was drawn up by Arians, you might argue that he's made up for the worst day in Cardinals fans' lives by leading the team to consecutive double-digit-winning seasons, the last despite losing starting quarterback Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton to season-ending injuries. And the team he has assembled for the 2015 season should be the best yet: Palmer is healthy, key players have been added, the defense is dominant, star receiver Larry Fitzgerald is as good as ever, and the running game is improved. The much-traveled Arians, 62, proved himself a winner with the Steelers, where he coached in two Super Bowls, and the Indianapolis Colts, where he took over as interim head coach for ailing head coach Chuck Pagano and posted 9-3 record and an AP Coach of the Year Award. This before he landed in the Valley of the Sun to turn around a Cardinals franchise that had gone to hell under former coach Ken Whisenhunt. Now, all he needs to cement his legacy is to take the once-lowly Cards into the promised land with a deep playoffs run that ends with a Super Bowl victory. You owe it to us, Bruce!

The Sun Devils men's basketball program has been in shambles for years. In fact, it's hard to remember a time when it wasn't. Despite a few luminaries, such as the bearded one, James Harden, having toiled for the Devils, there's been nothing memorable about the ASU program: never won an NCAA championship, never even been in the Final Four. The last time they were in the Sweet 16 was 1995, when they lost 97-73 to Kentucky. Over nine years, vaunted coach Herb Sendek only got ASU to the NCAA tournament twice, and his teams lost in the first and second rounds. Now comes legendary Duke point guard Bobby Hurley as Sun Devils head coach. Hurley, who led the Blue Devils to back-to-back national championships in 1991-92, brings instant viability to the ASU program. For two seasons, he was head coach at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where his Bulls posted 19-10 and 23-10 records and won the Mid-American Conference Men's Basketball Tournament. Though he spent five years in the National Basketball Association, he had a lackluster professional career after getting picked seventh by the Sacramento Kings in the 1993 league draft, largely because he never was the same on court after an automobile accident that almost killed him during his rookie year. But he was a luminary in college: Hurley was named most outstanding player in the '93 Final Four. At 1,076, the NCAA assists record still belongs to Hurley, who knows better than anyone what it takes for young men to achieve athletic greatness. Though none have done it before, he has a chance to achieve coaching greatness at ASU.

Steve Kerr never started an NBA game but had pivotal roles with the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs, playing on five championship teams. Um, Michael Jordan loved the guy, trusted him with the ball at the end of close games. Kerr made a couple of the most famous buzzer-beaters in NBA history. Once general manager of the Phoenix Suns, Kerr is the head coach who got away. In his first year as an NBA head coach with the Golden State Warriors, damned if his team didn't win this year's championship against the best player in the league, LeBron James, and his Cleveland Cavaliers — giving Kerr his fifth ring. The former University of Arizona standout was blessed with the best point guard in the league in Steph Curry and a great shooting guard in Klay Thompson, but it's what he did with the rest of the team that made the difference. Case in point: Andre Iguodala. Also a onetime Wildcats starter, Iguodala's best days seemed behind him, but Kerr had the good sense to recognize a man on a mission and give the veteran small forward enough playing time for AI to win the NBA Finals' Most Valuable Player Award. Iguodala played lights-out defense against James, holding the superstar to making 38 percent of his shots from the field. And in clinching the series for the Warriors in Game 6, AI tallied 26 points, five rebounds, and five assists. This after coming off the bench until Game 4 of the series. Kerr, aided by former Suns Coach Alvin Gentry as an assistant, decided to play a small lineup most of the time against the Cavs, and it paid off with the Warriors' wearing down James' bigger squad. Wonder how Eric Bledsoe and since-traded Goran Dragic would've done here with Kerr as their coach. Maybe they'd have been the Splash Brothers instead of Curry and Thompson.

Over the past few years, something of a stadium arms race has developed among Cactus League teams, which are constantly building bigger and more elaborate stadiums across the Valley. Though these new ballyards certainly are impressive, they aren't necessarily better. There's something about Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, that just makes it better than the rest. Maybe it's the location, where you're within walking distance of postgame burgers and beers in Old Town Scottsdale. Maybe it's the energized crowd, which roots for a team that's won three World Series championships in the past five years. Maybe it's the fact that Scottsdale Stadium is becoming something of a classic Cactus League ballpark, if there is such a thing. Or maybe it's something else. All we know is, it's where you want to watch spring training.

The Biltmore is the epitome of the Arizona dream. The entire campus is an idyllic getaway; the architecture is designed so ingeniously that you forget you're in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country the instant you step in the door. It makes relaxing at one of the hotel's three pools nothing but a relaxing getaway from the smog and the endless sprawl and the hustle of Phoenix. The fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired vistas will make you happy to drop $15 on a martini as you dip your toe into the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

At 13, we rode our 10-speed to Big Surf in Tempe with a friend on one of the hottest days of the year and suffered from a small bout of heat exhaustion, vomiting what little breakfast we'd had on the side of McClintock Drive. With only enough money to get in, we quenched our thirst from the water fountain and ate ketchup from our fingers, pretending we had fries to go along with it. It was one of the best days ever. We took our pilfered rafts to near the wall where the waves start, riding them across the backs of other swimmers waiting for the surge to take them, too. When we grew bored of the rafts, we gave them to some little kids and tried to body-surf among the crowds of bikini-clad women, muscled dudes, and children who hopefully held their pee until the bathroom. Decades later, amazingly, we can have the exact same experience — only better, because not only do we drive and have the money to pay for lunch, but because Big Surf is better than it used to be. Featured in a 1960s National Geographic issue, Big Surf has changed dramatically over the years to include an array of water slides (some not for the timid) and a play area for smaller kids. The sand that nearly produced third-degree burns in the summer has been long replaced by cooler Astroturf. The staff is more professional than ever, keeping an eye out for mischievous 13-year-olds. We try not to cause too much trouble for the sake of our kids.

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