TEMPE, Ariz. -- A couple of hours before the Arizona Cardinals' season finale against the Seattle Seahawks, third-string quarterback Matt Barkley emerged from the locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium wearing a helmet, a crop top version of a Cardinals pullover, compression boxer briefs and Ugg boots.
It was Barkley’s punishment for losing that week’s quarterback challenge.
He ran to midfield and right back to the locker room.
— Rob Schumacher (@RobSchumacher1) January 3, 2016
"It was funny because a couple coaches were out there on the field and this outfit that Matt Barkley had on was outrageous, and I don’t know where they even came up with this one," coach Bruce Arians said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "He’s running around the field and Earl Thomas was out there from the Seahawks, and he said, 'Oh, these dudes are sick. Man, they do this s--- every week. This is, like, crazy.'
"It’s a testament to our locker room."
By Week 17, the Cardinals' weekly contest on Fridays among starter Carson Palmer, backup Drew Stanton, Barkley and cornerback Patrick Peterson had become a social media phenomenon. It will continue in the playoffs, as long as the Cardinals are still playing, with Arians' approval.
Arizona’s quarterbacks have held the contest since Palmer joined the team in 2013, but the costumes for the losers took off this season after Palmer started an Instagram account, where he has chronicled quite a few of the punishments.
"I think we’re just getting more exposure this year because of some of the ideas, because of Instagram and because Barkley’s a social media darling -- or wants to be," Stanton said. "I think it’s because of the success we’ve had.
"That’s just another thing that we have here to have fun to make things competitive, especially now. You don’t want to lose that competition, because it’s no-holds-barred."
Palmer picked up the game when he was in Cincinnati from Jon Kitna, the quarterback he eventually replaced with the Bengals. Even though Peterson is considered the biggest talker of the group during the contest in Arizona, Palmer and Kitna engaged in epic battles that eventually started distracting Cincinnati’s practice.
"He and I would be doing fade drills and the competitive fade bucket throws and things like that, and it would get so loud down there that they would have to tell us to stop doing that because we were disrupting special-teams practice at the time, or whatever it was," Kitna said. "He and I would be down there just getting after it. But it was a great relationship."
The contest has rules, but they change weekly "depending on how Carson’s feeling," Stanton said, because "it’s Carson’s game." A garbage can is set up in either the back left or right corner of the end zone so the quarterbacks -- and Peterson -- can work on throwing goal-line fades.
In its current rendition, the quarterbacks use a sudden-death format. A pass in the can earns five points. A pass that hits the can gets one. They keep throwing until "you’re the last one out," Stanton said. There’s not an official tally of who’s won the most, but one thing is certain: Palmer’s lost just once. ("He’s won some tiebreakers, which has been good for him," Stanton said.) Stanton estimated he’s lost four times this season, with Barkley and Peterson making up the other 11 losses.
The game has evolved throughout the season. It used to be timed, with the throwers getting five minutes. Then they got 10 throws each. But it’s not just fun and games. There is a purpose to the contest.
"[Arians] always talks about hitting the pylon when you’re throwing certain types of throws," Stanton said.
Though all four throwers are naturally competitive, none want to lose the quarterback challenge. The result is wearing a costume or outfit designed by one or all of the winning participants. If the Cardinals have a home game that week, the loser wears the outfit all pregame, including a brief appearance on the field. If it’s a road game, the loser wears the selected outfit from Arizona to the destination, Palmer explained.
"I’m making sure that the stadium is not open for the public before they come out there," Arians said on the radio, with a laugh. "This has to happen pre-gates open to the stadium."
During the regular season, the loser had to dress up as Wonder Woman (Barkley), a cowboy (Peterson) and Buddy the Elf (Peterson) -- that was Arians’ favorite -- among others. Those outfits were tame because they were all worn on road trips. It’s when the Cardinals are home that the ideas start flowing.
Barkley’s outfit before Arizona’s Week 11 game against Cincinnati on national TV consisted of short compression briefs, Gatorade towels rigged and taped to look like chaps and a T-shirt cut down the middle that looked like a vest.
"Obviously we’ve pressed the limit on some things with some people and heard about it from some people’s wives," Stanton said.
What was the chief complaint?
"Somebody’s package was too exposed," Stanton said. "I think you can figure out that was Barkley’s wife [Brittany], which was understandable. Yeah, the one outfit I made him with the briefs and the chaps -- the cowboy outfit -- she wasn’t really a fan of."
Barkley's outfit instantly became a social media sensation and thrust the contest into the weekly NFL news cycle.
"We’ve had to tailor it back a little bit at times," Stanton said. "Then, of course, we have to make an executive decision for what’s best that day."
Compared with what Barkley wore before the Week 17 game against Seattle, the cowboy getup was conservative. Though his wife didn’t necessarily approve of the punishment, Barkley accepted it.
"It’s just part of the gig," he said. "You’d rather not, but when it comes down to it, you lost and you suck it up and that’s what you got to do."
But the attention paid to the Cardinals' quarterback challenge reached a fever pitch in Week 16 when Palmer lost for the first time. After three years of his helping choose the embarrassing costumes for his teammates to wear, it was their turn for revenge.
In honor of his Pro Bowl selection that week, they outfitted Palmer with a "coconut" bra made out of pads and shoelaces, and a hula skirt from torn towels. Palmer ran on the field and went through a series of stretches in the costume.
"When I saw it, I went, 'Oh God, this is not going to be pretty out there and I don’t think he’ll be out there long,'" Arians said.
Arians said he hopes more players join the contest; he once thought about joining it himself.
"Not anymore," he said with a smile.