Carson Palmer’s 2015 season was one of the best NFL stories from that year.
A former #1 overall draft pick out of USC, Palmer’s career has experienced ups and downs. After a breakout year in 2005 with the Bengals, his career experienced a turn when he tore his ACL on his very first pass in a wild card game against the Steelers that year.
Palmer soon parted ways with Cincinnati and played with the Raiders for 2 years before being traded to the Cardinals. No one understood why Arizona wanted a supposedly washed quarterback who’s prime was supposedly long gone, and in Palmer’s 24 TD 22 INT 2013, it looked like he was the one holding Arizona back form the playoffs.
Then 2014 came. Palmer played well statistically in the Monday Night opener, then missed 4 games due to a neck injury. With his return, Arizona won 5 straight games before he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season on a non contact injury. This occurred after he signed a 3 year $50M extension, and most people predicted a regression for him in 2015. There was no way he could continue the success he had the previous year.
Instead, Palmer had an MVP caliber season no one saw coming. Under his command and behind a good OL, solid run game and high quality receiving cast, the Cardinals went 13-3, and he had a career year, throwing 4,671 yards for 35 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 104.6 passer rating. It’s an underdog story for a quarterback on a team that rarely saw much success before Palmer’s arrival.
And yes, Palmer was on top of the 2015 Deep Ball Project, leading all quarterbacks in accurate passes and accuracy percentage.
After the success from 2015, Palmer is regularly being featured as a top 10 QB. And he deserves all of it.
What people who predicted a 2015 regression failed to recognize was the skill set Palmer showed off. Unlike many QBs in great situations, Palmer didn’t need to rely on his teammates to carry him. Instead, his accuracy and intelligence put the passes in the best possible spots for his receivers, allowing them to truly thrive.
As far as athleticism goes, Palmer doesn’t have the mobility of Russell Wilson, another top quarterback in the league, but he is one of the best quarterbacks at recognizing pressure and getting away from it.
Palmer is a very smart QB, one of the smartest in the league. He knows how to feel pressure surrounding yet at the same understands to keep his eyes downfield to survey the open receiver. In the first GIF, he does just that. The Rams blitz him from all sides, but he manages to step away from them and keep his eyes downfield for the accurate pass. In the 2nd GIF, Palmer does a great job of manipulating the defense by moving away from pressure, then moving up and right a bit, then firing the pass to John Brown.
Look closely at the third GIF, and you’ll see Palmer tuck the ball in when he senses a defender around him, and this not only prevents the pressure from causing a fumble or strip sack, but allows Palmer to deliver a strike to his target. In the fourth GIF, Palmer is able to get away from an unblocked defensive back. Despite the pressure on him, he keeps his eyes locked downfield and delivers a bullet just before getting hit.
It’s a formula you wouldn’t expect to work, but it in fact does. Head coach Bruce Arians runs a vertical offense that demands quick releases and strong play under pressure. To do this, general manager Steve Kelm (one of the best GMs in the NFL) wisely drafted speedy receivers and talented pass catchers for Palmer to throw to. With Arians’ aggressive play calling and Palmer’s delivery, it’s no wonder the offense has been one of the top units in recent seasons.
In 2015, Palmer also consistently offered the best ball placement in the league, often delivering throws demanding highlight reel worthy catches in tight coverage. That’s not a flaw that’s masked by the receivers though. In fact, that makes the supporting cast better.
Each of these four passes are great because they are away from the defender, close to the receiver, and at the same time precise, the key in an Arians offense. In each of these four GIFs, Palmer understands where his pass needs to go and how from the defender it must be. He’s able to lead his receivers with the throws instead of forcing them to go out of their way to make more difficult catches.
Palmer was also able to consistently throw dimes across the field.
The first GIF features one of the best throws I have ever seen, and probably the best one from 2015. It comes from the Sunday Night matchup at Seattle, and Palmer’s performance was good as one you’ll ever see. On that throw, he sails it immediately to Michael Floyd and incredibly leads him to the touchdown score. The placement was absolutely beautiful.
On the 2nd GIF, it initially looks dangerous, the ball is placed so far away from the defender that John Brown is able to make a great catch (it helps that the defender has no idea where the ball is either). On broadcast, Jon Gruden praised Palmer’s ability to locate the spot Brown was able to get the ball before the receiver even got downfield.
In the 3rd GIF, Palmer does a fantastic job of getting the ball out to his receiver just before he’s hit. This kind of quick anticipation while keeping one’s poise is something the QB had done all season long. In the fourth GIF, Palmer is able to throw his receiver open by pushing the ball away from the defender and forcing the WR to grab a high but very accurate and pretty touchdown pass.
So it’s obvious that Palmer played extremely well in 2015, and that he had his best supporting cast of his career. But it was no fluke either. Believe it or not, Palmer played extremely well since he came to Arizona.
The 22 interceptions Palmer threw in 2013 mislead. A chunk of those picks came off miscommunications where the receivers ran the wrong route, failures at the catch point, or receivers not running fast enough to get the throws. Palmer was the one that was able to get the Cardinals back in it late in games that year, even if the stats won’t show it.
These are all routine throws, ones that Palmer made constantly in 2015, yet largely went unrecognized because of his reputation at that point. He was still able to give his receivers the best possible chances to make a play, even if the stats don’t point it out. For example, the 3rd GIF, against the Titans, might be the tightest throw I’ve seen Palmer make.
This throw really caught my attention though. It’s really low, but place so well that the defenders can’t make a play on it. Only the receiver can go reach it, and he does. This is a perfectly thrown ball, perhaps the best one Palmer has made in his Cardinals career.
As shown by the 2 GIFs above, Palmer was still great at adjusting to pressure, locking his eyes downfield, and delivering the accurate pass under duress. This continued in 2014.
Like in 2015 and the year prior, Palmer offered tight ball placement in great coverage…
Dimes under pressure…
(The game winning touchdown above in particular is very spectacular.)
And overall terrific accuracy.
2014 was the year Palmer really started to get attention though, because of his stats. No one in their right mind would ever have been convinced that he’d have the MVP season he would have the following year. But as the GIFs from 2013 and 2014 prove, Palmer was this great QB all along. His performances in 2013 carried Arizona to a near playoff berth, and his ones from 2014 carried them to a playoff spot, despite only playing in 6 games. Palmer is the driving factor behind the Cardinals offense. He keeps the team competitive, playoff hungry, and dominant, leading one of the top vertical offenses in the modern NFL.
With a doubt, some of you are here today because Palmer “screws up when it matters most.” Palmer plays great in the regular season, but sucks in the playoffs. Right?
Not only is this viewpoint extremely narrow minded, it suggests that a small January sample is worth more than a 16 game stretch, a stretch where Palmer needed to play well to even get to the playoffs. True, postseason performances are remembered more, but didn’t Peyton Manning teach us last season that you don’t necessarily need to play well at all to win a Super Bowl?
Besides, there’s a good reason why Palmer didn’t live up to expectations in the postseason; a finger injury sustained from a matchup earlier in the year against the Eagles. Before that game and during it, Palmer’s ball placement was spot on almost 100% of the time. After it, the placement was more erratic, and it definitely looked like Palmer wasn’t comfortable throwing at all.
You don’t just magically stop playing at the top of your game for no reason. Palmer’s finger injury was hurting him and the Cardinals, not necessarily Palmer huritng the Cardinals himself.
The 4 interception game against the Panthers is talked about a lot, but 3 of Palmer’s interceptions occurred in the fourth quarter, when the Cardinals were already down 21 points. That doesn’t excuse Palmer for having bad throws or a bad performance, but it wasn’t as bad of an all around performance as the stats suggest. In these situations, you have to gamble to make some kind of plays happen. It’s not like Arizona was within striking distance in the 4th quarter. That would have been worse.
But regardless of how you feel over that Panthers performance, why are we ignoring the play that got them to the NFC Championship Game in the first place?
On the first play of overtime, Palmer was the one able to escape pressure, spin around it, and locate an uncovered Larry Fitzgerald across the other side of the field. What the future Hall of Fame wide receiver did on this play was incredible, but why don’t we talk about what Palmer did on this play? Is this not a quarterback play that “playoff winners accomplish?” This is not an easy play to make, so why do people ignore it?
While Palmer made mistakes most of that game, he easily made up for all of it with that play. Is it because Palmer is old and had several lost years before his Cardinals era that we are not impressed with this play or Palmer “grabbing the QB Win”? On broadcast, Cris Collinsworth himself gave most of the credit to Palmer’s play, saying that if he didn’t escape or locate Fitz, they wouldn’t be that close to victory in the first place.
Furthermore, if we rip Palmer for playing badly in the playoffs, why don’t we rip certain quarterbacks for not making it there? Quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees. I’m not saying we should by any means (all 3 are great quarterbacks either way), but if we are bashing Palmer for even getting to the playoffs but not delivering, by that logic, we should rip those guys too. Eli and Brees have rings, but Rivers doesn’t, so the lack of criticism (again, I do not encourage criticism of him or Eli and Brees) by media and fans is strange.
By that logic, was Cam Newton’s MVP season worthless because he didn’t recover a crucial fumble? Did Blair Walsh bail out Russell Wilson by gifting Seattle to the NFC Divisional? Was an injured Ben Roethlisberger gifted by the Bengals meltdown in the 4th quarter? Did Tom Brady fail to “beat Peyton” one last time without his top players healthy, and did Peyton win his 2nd Super Bowl in spite of himself?
These are topics people talk about, but not as much when Palmer’s name is talked about. It makes no sense to gloss over one issue yet ignore the elephant in the room when an issue as crucial, if not more so, is around. Those performances are not a reflection of who Palmer is as a quarterback, and a healthier finger would’ve made him more comfortable to throw in those playoff games.
Carson Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and has been for a very long time. Longer than any of us have realized. This article has been eye opening for me because I never thought to look at his 2013 and 2014 film. It was mindblowing seeing him play near the same level he did in 2015.
People don’t appreciate Carson Palmer enough. We all know of his glory days in his early tenure in Cincinnati, so why don’t we celebrate his success story with the Cardinals? If he was truly revived and rebounded like many people are saying, why aren’t we celebrating this?
Palmer is in a great situation with the supporting cast he has, but he also makes that supporting cast great in return. He makes his players better by providing awareness under pressure, football smarts when surveying the field, and perfect ball placement. He is arguably playing at a much higher peak than Kurt Warner during his time with the Cardinals. Fans down in Arizona probably appreciate all that Palmer has done, and I’m sure Fitzgerald in particular appreciates him.
That doesn’t mean it’s enough. Carson Palmer is one of the most underappreciated great quarterbacks in the league, one of the smartest, and one of the players that should mean the most to a city that rarely saw success before his arrival.
(Featured Image via baltimoresun.com)