Carson Palmer Only Thing Stopping Arizona Cardinals from Challenging in NFC West

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Carson Palmer Only Thing Stopping Arizona Cardinals from Challenging in NFC West
USA Today

What is the upside for a team on which the quarterback might be its biggest deficiency?

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was typically mediocre in Week 3 of the preseason against the Cincinnati Bengals. Wins and losses don't matter in the preseason, so this isn't a critique based solely upon the fact that the Bengals won, 19-13.

With that said, performances are still evaluated, and Palmer's outing wasn't anything to write home about. The signal-caller was 7-of-19 for 92 yards (4.8 yards per attempt), an interception and a 31.0 passer rating.

Yuck.

Palmer has underwhelmed since arriving from the Oakland Raiders last season. The former first-round pick has seen his career appear all but over a number of times in the past decade—once when he contemplated retirement rather than playing for the Cincinnati Bengals again and once more as it became clear the Raiders weren't going anywhere with the then-33-year-old.

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Quarterback is supposed to be the linchpin of the team, holding everything together even if things go wrong.

The best teams tend to also have the best quarterbacks, and the exceptions to the rule are growing fewer and farther between as the NFL continually morphs into even more of a passing league.

Just how good are the Cardinals in spite of Palmer, and how much is he holding them back?

Steve Keim was promoted to general manager last season after years of being one of the hottest young "future general manager" names on the market. Prior to that, he spent a decade serving in the personnel department under Rod Graves.

Keim continued what Graves had started: the construction of a defense that would scare the living daylights out of opponents.

Now, heading into 2014, the Cardinals boast one of the most physically imposing and fearsome defenses in the league, with names like cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive end Calais Campbell and nickel corner/safety Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu.

They also added cornerback Antonio Cromartie in free agency and safety Deone Bucannon in the draft.

Their opponents' offensive coordinators should be shaking in their boots.

The MMQB's Andy Benoit wrote about how the Cardinals front seven is almost impossible to stop:

Plus, the saving grace for Arizona’s pass rush is that, unlike most 3-4 fronts, it gets penetration from both of its defensive ends. Eleventh-year pro Darnell Dockett has tremendous strength, tenacity and hand quickness, making it tough to sustain blocks against him. Seventh-year pro Calais Campbell has freakish length mixed with equally notable power and dexterous movement in traffic. Bowles wisely utilizes both players on various stunts and gap-attacking concepts. On early downs, he’ll squeeze both inside, aligning them over the guards, shoulder-to-shoulder with nose tackle Dan Williams, creating a “Bear front” that’s nearly impossible to run against.

Last season, the Cardinals ranked sixth overall in total defense and seventh in scoring, giving up only 20 points a game. Above them on that latter list: Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Kansas City.

That's right...playoff teams.

Moreover, that attacking defense of Arizona tied for fifth with 31 takeaways last season. Of those, 22 were interceptions, which is exactly what the plan was when Mathieu, Peterson and the rest of those defensive stalwarts were put togetherand it should only get better this season.

Think about that for a minute.

The defense stopped opponents in their tracks early and often all season long. The defense managed to keep scoring low and give the offense an awfully low bar to clear. The defense continually put the offense in better-than-average starting position with a crazy number of takeaways.

Sadly, the offense could not capitalize.

Carson Palmer Since 2009
Year Team QB Rating Yards Per Attempt TD:INT
2009 Bengals 83.6 6.64 21:13
2010 Bengals 82.4 6.78 26:20
2011 Raiders 80.5 8.39 13:16
2012 Raiders 85.3 7.11 22:14
2013 Cardinals 83.9 7.47 24:22

ESPN

Palmer was the 18th-ranked quarterback in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Sorted by PFF's signature QB rating, that drops to 20th. It doesn't make Palmer the worst quarterback in the league, but it does make him a liability for any team with playoff aspirations.

Meanwhile, Palmer has a solid cast of characters around him that don't need a ton of help elevating their play.

First and foremost, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is quickly entering "best player we don't talk about anymore" status. He's at the top of a very talented Arizona receiving group, though, as Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey wrote about: "Undoubtedly, the strength of this roster now lies at the wide-receiver position."

Fahey runs down the entire depth chart and lists Michael Floyd as a breakout candidate.

He also touches on the Cardinals' incredible depth at the tight-end position—a facet of the offense that should make Palmer more dependable, if nothing else.

The running game in Arizona is similarly improving under Keim. Running back Andre Ellington is starting to look like the real deal, as is an offensive line now anchored by another former Oakland Raider—left tackle Jared Veldheer.

There is so much to love about the Cardinals except for the guy taking the snaps from under center.

Where do the Cardinals go from here?

How good can the Cardinals be with Palmer at the helm?

In the NFC West, these questions are amplified a hundredfold. One doesn't waltz into Seattle or San Francisco very often with mediocrity and get very far. Pitting Palmer against those top defenses isn't like bringing a knife to a gunfight; it's like bringing a plastic sword-shaped toothpick.

Can a team built like the Cardinals win in today's NFL? Sure, it's possibleanything isand we've seen defenses like that of the Cardinals carry subpar quarterbacking into the playoffs before—much likelier with the complement of a strong rushing attack.

It's difficult to imagine that scenario, though, as the Cardinals will essentially be fighting for the second wild-card spot from Week 1.

The tough NFC Westheck, the NFC overalldoesn't seem conducive to a situation where the Cardinals can limp into the playoffs and hope they catch fire.

Instead, this looks like a team that might be a lot closer to the top of the draft order if almost everything doesn't go right.

The quarterback position is one of the most important positions in all of sports, and the Cardinals just don't have one that inspires any confidence. It's a shame, though, because that is a waste of a really good team.

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

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