When Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim acquired Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raiders this past offseason, NFL analysts around the league loved the move. Ron Jaworski of ESPN (h/t Mike Sando) called the trade an “excellent move.” Jaworski went on to praise Palmer’s arm strength and his ability to read coverage.
Based on the fact that Arizona only surrendered a conditional seventh-round pick in 2014, it’s hard not to like the acquisition. The Cardinals have suffered through atrocious quarterback play ever since Kurt Warner retired at the end of the 2009 season.
Up until now, replacing Warner seemed impossible. Former head coach Ken Whisenhunt played seven different quarterbacks during the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons. Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Richard Bartel, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer never played well enough to return the organization to playoff glory.
This, in turn, forced organizational changes. First-year head coach Bruce Arians was hired away from Indianapolis to help Arizona regain its footing. Turning things around in a jam-packed NFC West won’t be easy, but Arians proved in 2012 that he has what it takes to be a successful leader of men.
While Colts head coach Chuck Pagano recovered from leukemia last season, Arians stepped in as the team’s interim head coach. He went 9-3 and guided the Colts to a second-place finish in the AFC South.
The 2012 AP Coach of the Year may not immediately turn the Cardinals into instant playoff contenders, but he will field a much more competitive club in 2013. Additionally, he will finally straighten out the quarterback position by helping Palmer re-establish his once-dominant form.
When people think of a dominant Palmer, they reminisce of 2005. In 2005, the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback completed 67.8 percent of his passes, threw for 3,836 yards, tossed 32 touchdowns and escorted the Bengals to their first winning season in 15 years. Furthermore, Palmer helped Cincinnati collect double-digit wins for the first time since 1988.
With Arians’ expertise, improved offensive line play and a plethora of offensive weapons like Larry Fitzgerald (wide receiver), Michael Floyd (wide receiver) and Rob Housler (tight end), there’s no question Palmer can recapture his framework from the most magical season of his career.
Let’s take a look at how he’s going to do it.
The first order of business for Palmer will be to get on the same page as Fitzgerald. The All-Pro wideout is not only coming off the worst season of his career, but he will turn 30 years old on August 31. At this point in his career, Fitz needs Palmer just as badly as Palmer needs Fitz.
Here’s what the six-time Pro Bowl selection told Tom Pelissero of USA Today:
I know Carson wants to play well this year. This is a huge year, and we’re leaning on each other. It’s simple as that. I need him as bad as anybody, and I’m going to go out there and give everything I can for him.
With both of their attitudes in line, getting on the same page from a technical standpoint will be equally important. Palmer needs to learn what types of plays and routes have made Fitzgerald successful in years past.
When Warner was the Cardinals’ signal-caller, Arizona made it a point to push the ball down the field on a weekly basis. In 2008, Warner was the most accurate passer on balls that traveled 20-plus yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
As you can see in the chart above, Warner completed 50 percent of his passes downfield. Five of his 23 completions went for touchdowns, and only three of his 46 attempts were intercepted. Even though his pass-catching targets dropped four passes, they made up for it by averaging 37.4 yards per reception.
Coincidentally, no wide receiver had more success on deep passes than Fitzgerald did. Of Warner’s 46 attempts downfield, Fitz accounted for 39 percent of his throws.
Fitzgerald turned 12 of his 18 targets into receptions and scored three touchdowns in the process. Only Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Bryant caught more touchdown passes on throws that traveled 20-plus yards downfield.
Not to mention Fitzgerald managed to secure every catchable ball thrown his way.
For those of you who think Fitz can’t reel in downfield throws anymore, you’re sorely mistaken. In 2011, he caught 14 deep passes. Just like in 2008, he managed to snag every catchable pass that was thrown in his direction. Moreover, four of his 14 catches resulted in six points, all while averaging 35.4 yards per catch.
Even during a down year (2012), Fitzgerald managed to haul in more than a few downfield passes. None was more memorable than his 37-yard touchdown catch against the Eagles. On this play (seen below), Fitz took All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to school.
Whisenhunt’s offense deployed a “21” personnel look against the Eagles' Cover 4 scheme. Fitzgerald’s primary objective on the play was to get deep on a post route down the middle of the field. The long developing route was set up nicely thanks to a well-executed play-action fake.
As soon as Fitzgerald broke away from press coverage, he started to head upfield. Safety Nate Allen proved to be no help to Asomugha because he was spying wide receiver Andre Roberts on the deep crossing route underneath. This, in turn, left the back end of Philadelphia’s defense completely exposed.
The result was an incredible catch by Fitzgerald. He did a great job of creating separation and attacking the weak coverage area. Without question, one of the best receivers in the NFL still has what it takes to make defenses pay week in and week out.
As much as we like to think Fitz will be Palmer’s only downfield target, that’s simply not the case. Housler and Floyd will see their fair share of targets on balls that travel 20-plus yards through the air. In 2012, Arizona’s quarterback carousel targeted Floyd 16 times and Housler five times on deep passes.
Floyd caught five of his 16 deep targets, while Housler caught one of his five targets. Sure, those numbers don’t exactly translate into high accuracy marks, but they do show that there are opportunities to be had.
Arizona brought Palmer in to help the offense capitalize on missed opportunities downfield. Over the course of his 10-year career, he has been praised as one of the most accurate deep-ball passers in the game.
Since PFF started collecting in-depth statistics in 2008, Palmer has a downfield completion percentage of 30 percent. He has also amassed 2,285 yards on 61 completions and tossed 21 touchdowns.
His completion percentage isn’t ideal, yet one has to take certain circumstances into consideration. In 2011 and 2012, his wide receiving corps was less than impressive, and 73 percent of Palmer’s throws came when the Raiders were losing.
That last number alone skewed Palmer’s completion percentage on deep passes.
Ever since Arians was hired, we have been hearing about how important the deep passing game will be in Arizona. Lo and behold, the same sentiment rings true in terms of Palmer resurrecting his career in the desert.
If Palmer is going to re-establish his once-dominant form in 2013, he will need to start putting up Warner-esque numbers. The task won’t be an easy one, but based on what we know, he’s in the right system, and history is on his side.
The 2003 first overall pick appears to be in good hands going forward thanks in large part to Arians and his dynamic vertical passing attack.