It's been a rough season thus far for Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. The Cardinals have a winning record, but Palmer's performance doesn't scream out "winner."
Through the first six games, Palmer is 131-of-221 for 1,483 yards with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Palmer has thrown at least two interceptions in each of his last four games and is on pace for 30 of them this season.
When you compare him to his peers at the position, his numbers are underwhelming. The seven touchdowns ties him with the likes of Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens and rookie Geno Smith of the New York Jets.
Palmer's thrown the second-most interceptions in the league so far. Only Eli Manning of the New York Giants has been worse with his 15 interceptions. It's safe to say Palmer isn't in with the crowd many Arizona fans thought he would be with this season. Head coach Bruce Arians favors a more vertical passing attack as opposed to a dink-and-dunk style which has had an impact on Palmer's effectiveness.
Let's break down three of his recent interceptions to see how this looks on the field.
First we'll take a look at an interception late in the first half against Carolina. Arizona has the ball with 38 seconds and a timeout left in the half. The game is tied at 3-3 at this point and the Cardinals have the ball at the Carolina 23-yard line.
Arizona has three receivers to the left and two to the right with an empty backfield. Carolina is going to drop its defensive backs and some linebackers back in coverage to prevent a possible late touchdown by the Cardinals before halftime.
Palmer is going for Larry Fitzgerald (red circle) and he will run a skinny post route to the end zone. Palmer tries to thread the ball into Fitzgerald but notice how many Carolina defenders are back there waiting for the pass. The pass is picked off as three Carolina defenders converge on the ball and Mike Mitchell of the Panthers makes the play.
But why did it go wrong? And how could Palmer have made a better decision?
Andre Ellington (bottom) was left alone and could have picked up an easy eight yards before sliding out of bounds to save the final timeout. Andre Roberts (third from top) runs upfield before slanting towards the sidelines and has nobody within 10 yards of him.
Palmer easily had two other receivers open and could have made gains but chose to go to Fitzgerald instead. That leads to the other problem on this play. Palmer's eyes locked on Fitzgerald from the snap and he did nothing to try and confuse the defense. Palmer's head remained motionless and he looked at where he was going to throw the ball. He seemed oblivious to the fact there were four other receivers on the field on that play. You can't throw it into triple coverage and expect success.
Of his 11 interceptions this season, nine have come on the opponents' side of the 50-yard line. Of those nine, six have been in the red zone or the end zone so these poor throws are costing the team points.
Let's take a look at the two interceptions he threw in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers. Both interceptions came in the first quarter.
Arizona has the ball near midfield and the play is to hit tight end Jim Dray (red circle) with the pass. The play is not a bad idea but the execution runs into a snag. Fitzgerald goes deeper down the field to draw coverage off of Dray. However, the two underneath receivers nearly run into each other on the logo at midfield.
The San Francisco safety in the gold circle, Eric Reid, drops back into coverage but takes a risk by going for the ball. It worked for him since he made the interception and the 49ers cashed in for a field goal.
Look at how close this play was. Dray (red circle) had all kinds of running room (white box) and would have been running away from the last defender on the play. Palmer might need to put some more zip on the ball to get it there quicker. That could make the difference between an interception and a 53-yard touchdown pass.
On this play, the Cardinals are backed up near their own end zone. Palmer is going to look for Fitzgerald again (red circle). Carlos Rogers of the 49ers (gold circle) is lined up in tight man coverage in front of Fitzgerald. San Francisco is in a 4-2-5 look so they are expecting a pass on 3rd-and-10.
Here again, Palmer makes eyes for Fitzgerald and doesn't notice the two safeties backing up but coming together towards the middle of the field. Rogers ran with Fitzgerald and is able to get in front of him for the interception. At no point does he look anywhere else besides where he's going to throw it.
Just like in the game against Carolina, Palmer tried to force the ball into triple coverage and got burned.
So how does Palmer fix this situation? Thankfully, there's a simple plan he can follow to fix things.
1. Palmer needs to throw more to his running backs and tight ends.
Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd have combined for 95 targets this season. Ellington, Roberts, Dray, tight end Rob Housler and running back Rashard Mendenhall have combined for 92 targets between the five of them, according to analysis of these ESPN stats. Housler missed the first three games with an ankle injury.
Last season in Oakland, he threw to his tight end, Brandon Myers, 105 times which led to 79 receptions for 806 yards and four touchdowns.
Ellington's speed and elusiveness make him a great target out of the backfield. Housler seems to be getting better with each week so hopefully he can be relied on as the season progresses. If Palmer thinks he can get by with just Fitzgerald and Floyd, he could wind up with 30 interceptions.
2. Palmer needs to throw more towards the sidelines than the middle of the field.
All three of the interceptions we broke down happened in the middle of the field. Arizona should be looking more to the outside of the field with its passing options. They could find holes in zone defenses there to exploit. If the defense is going man-to-man, an overthrown pass to the sidelines results in an incompletion much more often than an interception.
3. Palmer has to make the most of his time in the pocket.
Palmer has been sacked 13 times in six games so far. That's on pace for 34 sacks this season which is a vast improvement over the 58 Arizona allowed last year. The offensive line is giving him time to survey the field but he didn't do that in these examples. Palmer needs to be able to look around for secondary and tertiary reads on a play instead of throwing passes into tight spots.
There could be some adjustments to the playbook each week but he should know his progressions and use them to help himself out. Or bail himself out of trouble.
It's not likely to happen under the current coaching regime.
According to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic, the high-flying offense that was promised is still AWOL at present.
From the article itself, Arians insisted Friday that nothing has changed. The Cardinals still want to throw deep a handful of times each game. They would still like to score a point per every minute of possession time. They don’t want to stretch the field horizontally with dink-and-dunk throws.
"We'll never change our goals," Arians told the newspaper. "Once you set that, you should reach for them every time you go out there and find reasons why or why not [they are met] and try and fix them."
If the vertical game isn't getting enough going, perhaps a little dink-and-dunk might be what the doctor orders. It would help with the timing of passes and reduce the risk of interceptions.
Craig Grialou of KTAR-AM (Arizona Sports 620) wrote that Palmer is focused on improvement and being held accountable for his play. At least he isn't running and hiding from the way his season has started.
Palmer needs to be more complete in that he needs to utilize all of his options and make the best decision on each passing play. Sometimes, that's throwing it away.
We'll how Palmer performs next when Arizona hosts the Seattle Seahawks tonight at University of Phoenix Stadium.