The current MVP debate is centered around either Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. More candidates have been listed, but for the most part, people believe these 2 to be at the top. In my mind, one candidate is the clear front-runner.
This may seem like a shock to some, as Brady and Rodgers are future Hall of Famers and are bigger names than the 35-year-old starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals. But bear with me; it takes an unbiased standpoint and research via the eye test to fully understand why Palmer gets my MVP vote at this moment.
Carson Palmer has had a relatively fascinating career up to this point. The #1 pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, he emerged as the Cincinnati Bengals starter in 2004, then broke out in 2005, completing 345 of his 509 passes (67.8 CMP%) for 3,836 yards, 32 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and a passer rating of 101.1, as he led the Bengals back to the playoffs for the first time since 1990. In the Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he suffered torn ACL and MCL injuries on his first pass attempt, significantly altering the course of his career.
Since then, Palmer’s career in Cincinnati went up and down, and he was traded in the middle of the 2011 season to the Oakland Raiders, where he played for 2 years. CP was then traded to the Cardinals in 2013 for a 2013 6th round pick and a conditional pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. While he struggled his first season in Phoenix, the Cardinals managed to go 10-6, just barely missing the playoffs.
2014 provided a turning point. Palmer thrived in Bruce Arians’ system, throwing 11 TD and 2 INT in his first 5 games as a starter before being knocked out for the entire season in a November 9th game against the Rams (suffering another ACL injury on non-contact). The Cardinals went 6-0 in games Palmer started, but 5-5 without, as they managed to sneak into the playoffs before losing to the Carolina Panthers at home.
Enter 2015. Through the first 5 games of the season, Palmer has completed 96 of his 148 passes (64.9%) for 1,316 yards, 8.9 yards per attempt, a league leading 13 touchdowns (tied with Aaron Rodgers), 3 interceptions, a 114.0 passer rating, and an 82.7 QBR. Arizona is on top of the NFC West at 4-1, and the signal caller is off to the best start of his career.
Before I get to Palmer’s MVP case, I want to explain why Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers do not have my current vote, starting with Brady. His numbers are certainly spectacular (116/160, 72.5 CMP%, 1,387 yards, 11 TD, 0 INT, 121.5 Rate, 346.8 yards per game), and he’s played great, but he’s also had the benefit of significantly poor coverage and the scheme he plays in. His gaudy performance against the Steelers came more because of Pittsburgh’s defense failing to guard Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, and last week’s performance against Dallas occurred thanks to 2 touchdowns benefitted by long YAC plays from Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman. Rodgers, the reigning MVP, has also been stellar, but his game against the Chiefs wasn’t as impressive as the numbers suggest, and he struggled at home against the Rams last week. Other candidates such as Andy Dalton (Still showing some flaws behind a great supporting cast), Cam Newton (Buccaneers game slowed him down), and Matt Ryan (Inconsistent in week 1 and week 6) share similarities.
Carson Palmer, on the other hand, has played consistently great since week 1. He’s constantly pushing the ball down the field, and the rewards have been there. Through 5 games, he’s already completed more deep passes in 2015 than he did in 2014. See the chart below for more information.
As everyone probably knows, I do annual deep ball research for qualifying QBs season-by-season. Carson Palmer only played 6 games last season, so he did not qualify for the minimum of 8 games for my research, though he didn’t do half bad on the deep ball in 2014.
2015, as far as I’m concerned, has treated him far better. Palmer’s ball placement and vision have been near flawless, and the often great Cardinals pass protection and schemes from Bruce Arians’ offense have allowed him to make tight throws to where his receivers can make a play, and his deep ball has been a big part of that. Arians tends to draw up a vertical passing game, focusing on receivers that can make big plays and QBs that have enough arm strength to force downfield throws. Needless to say, Old Man Palmer has discovered the Fountain of Youth, and has been a terrific fit in Arians’ offense.
To further help explain why Carson Palmer gets my MVP vote at this very moment, I watched and took notes on all of his first 5 games of the 2015 season.
Week 1 vs. New Orleans Saints
An excellent start to 2015, Palmer’s consistency shined in this one, as his decision making was spot on. His touchdown pass to John Brown in the first quarter was a perfect display of buying time and waiting for Brown to get open, as was his 17-yard TD pass to Daniel Fells in the 4th quarter, where he placed the ball right at the corner of the end zone for Fells to grab (below).
Week 2 at Chicago Bears
Again, much like week 1, Palmer’s ball placement was perfect. In general, he’s able to read the defense and survey a place for his receivers to make a catch, and he was able to do so, especially with Larry Fitzgerald. His sole interception came off a batted pass on the line of scrimmage. A terrific game once again.
Week 3 vs. San Francisco
Colin Kaepernick’s implosion got all the headlines, so Palmer took full advantage of his defense’s takeaways. His only major mistake came on his interception (1:09 2Q), as he overthrew Michael Floyd. Otherwise, he was highly consistent, making great throws with relative ease. An excellent example comes at 12:21 4Q (below). Palmer notices pressure coming around him, climbs up the pocket, and fires a beautiful tight throw to Jermaine Gresham for 22 yards.
Week 4 vs. St. Louis
The 1 TD 1 INT ratio misleads, as the Cardinals offensive line collapsed against an elite defense in St. Louis. Moreso, Palmer played far better than the stats indicate, staying on target while stirring away somewhat from downfield passing as he worked the intermediate game. This is a game you need to check out if you’re skeptical that he played very well.
Week 5 at Detroit
While Palmer only had 14 pass attempts on a day where the defense and run game dominated, he played a significant role in the Cardinals’ lopsided victory, as his excellency on deep passing illustrated. His throw to John Brown in the end zone is an example of this. If this is being a game manager, I want my QB to manage games like this every game.
Carson Palmer is the best QB the Cardinals have had since Kurt Warner. Coincidentally, not only are both old quarterbacks that somehow didn’t explode into a million bones when hit, they’re also producing similar numbers through the first 5 games (Warner 2008, Palmer 2009). See below.
While an argument can be made that Palmer has the better defense than Warner, CP is also pushing the ball further and relying less on yards after the catch than Warner (According to Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics, Warner had 47% of his yards come after the catch, while Palmer only has 39% via sportingcharts.com. In addition, Warner threw for 4.0 air yards per attempt, 14th in 2008, while Palmer has thrown for 5.4 so far, 3rd best in 2015). Palmer also has a declined Larry Fitzgerald; while he’s still very good, Fitz is no longer in the prime of his career when Warner was his QB. The NFC West is far better in 2015 than the disaster was in 2008, so it’ll be a test for Palmer going down the stretch.
Furthermore, Palmer himself has taken a huge step at throwing for air yards, as seen in the below chart. Note that a lower YAC and YAC% is better for a QB in my opinion, as well as a higher amount of Air Yards, Air YPA and Air Yards%.
In other words, Palmer has done great work in the Cardinals’ offense, as has Arians with keeping him comfortable.
Can Palmer keep this up? Who knows, this is a very unpredictable season for a generally unpredictable game. But if his first 5 starts are of any indication, this is no fluke. Palmer is not being relegated to a system QB in a west coast offense. He’s not relying totally on tight ends and runningbacks on dumpoffs like Alex Smith or Nick Foles. He’s constantly pushing the ball in the intermediate/downfield areas, and his success on accuracy in those areas has been incredible considering his age (35).
On Sunday, Palmer faces the Steelers, and depending on the outcome, will determine the 2015 MVP race as a whole. But as of right now, his spectacular play garners him my MVP vote.
Stats via Sportingcharts.com, advancedfootballanalytics.com, espn.com, and pro-football-reference.com. Photos via nfl.com.