With Jason Campbell finally getting some continuity in coaching after continuous seasons of having his offensive coordinator changed, and Darren McFadden running at will, the Raiders finally looked like contenders for the AFC West title, if nothing more exciting. It was a huge improvement from recent years, and the horrors under the quarterbacking of former LSU standout JaMarcus Russell.
Then came the injuries. Campbell went down with a collarbone injury during the win over the Cleveland Browns, and McFadden went lame with a mid-foot sprain that has since prevented him from playing.
Based on his performances from 2005 to 2007, offering two high-round picks to the Bengals for the 2002 Heisman Trophy award-winning Palmer might have seemed like the ideal way to get a quality quarterback on the roster while maintaining the charge through a critical period of the season, so that the playoffs were still a viable opportunity (or indeed quite a likely one given the weakness of the AFC West). During that three-year span, Palmer completed 64.96% of passes and threw 86 touchdown passes to just 45 interceptions.
However, the Carson Palmer that played from 2008 to 2010, after serious injury, doesn’t seem to be the same player, completing 60.88% of passes with 50 touchdowns and 37 interceptions. It’s difficult to know if the fault lay with Palmer or with a combination of the lack of protection from the Cincinnati offensive line and older, more vulnerable receivers cycling through his passing options.
At the same time, running back Cedric Benson became a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time, so there was also a change in offensive focus, but again, it isn’t clear whether that was as a result of Palmer’s injuries in 2008, after which Benson's carries increased to more than 300 in 2009 and 2010, or simply a coaching decision aimed at utilising Benson more.
By the end of the 2010 season, Palmer was at such odds with the Cincinnati organisation that he refused to play for them any longer and demanded a trade away. Bengals owner Mike Brown made it clear that he was perfectly prepared to let Palmer sit the season out and would not give in to trade demands, and in the 2011 NFL Draft the Bengals picked up TCU quarterback Andy Dalton to replace Palmer.
Given both the decline in his production and the apparent intransigence with the Bengals ownership, it is surprising that the Raiders offered such a high value in draft picks, and given the options of walking away from Palmer’s situation with such a return, Cincinnati jumped at the opportunity.
Perhaps their willingness to do business was influenced by the solid start that Dalton had made with the team, as the Bengals also stood at 4-2 at the time of the trade. With the offseason turmoil and fairly low expectations for the 2011 season, such a start justified the owner’s stance. Either way, you got the impression that Oakland thought they were getting a star turn, whilst Cincinnati were just keen to end the relationship that had turned sour.
And so Carson came to Oakland. Not expected to play immediately given his unfamiliarity with the Raiders’ playbook, Palmer was nonetheless thrown into the game against Kansas City early in the third quarter after starter Kyle Boller went 7 for 14 with three interceptions and a fumble. Palmer fared little better, throwing three interceptions himself as the Chiefs ran up a 28-0 victory.
This wasn’t the start expected of Palmer but, with the bye week to prepare more thoroughly, hopes were higher for the Week 9 visit of the Denver Broncos.
There was certainly improvement over the Kansas City debacle, but the improvements were only incremental. Palmer again threw three interceptions, but he also tossed three touchdown passes, and the overall quarterback play was much better.
The biggest certainty of the day was that Raiders fans were already second-guessing their team’s decision to invest so heavily in Carson Palmer, and after successive defeats, the fans will not be particularly patient.
But Raiders fans should not despair. Whilst he is the obvious symbol and target for opprobrium given the high purchase cost, and six interceptions in six quarters of play looks extremely bad, it isn’t purely Palmer’s fault that the Raiders have lost their last two games.
Taking into account the learning process that Palmer has admitted to as he adapts to Oakland’s offense, and the clear incremental improvements between the Chiefs and Broncos games, it isn’t a stretch to expect the team to become better and better as the season continues. Palmer linked up well with wide receiver Jacoby Ford and looked more confident running the offense.
More importantly, what Oakland have lacked in the past two games has been the ground game that was so effective earlier in the season. Without Darren McFadden in the lineup, the Raiders gained just 155 and 100 yards rushing in those two games. With him back, with Michael Bush relegated to a more appropriate spotting/third-down duty, and with Palmer improving game by game, the Raiders should recover some of the swagger they displayed earlier in the season.
If they can eliminate some of the most egregious of the penalties that they continue to be called for, that might help even more.
In addition, with Oakland still in a tie for leadership of the AFC West at 4-4, and with three divisional games to play, they still have a decent chance of winning the division. Even though there are also difficult trips to Minnesota and Green Bay, the relative weakness the division means that a team with an 8-8 record might easily win a place in the playoffs, and once there it’s often something of a crapshoot how deep into the playoffs a team can get depending on form and momentum.
The first one-and-a-half games under Carson Palmer haven’t provided much in the way of cheer for Raiders fans, but they haven’t demonstrated that the team is done for the season, either. Had the owners not made the move for Palmer, Oakland would have been looking at trying to progress under Kyle Boller or a free-agent whilst Jason Campbell was out (likely for the rest of the season), and it would be unlikely that we would even consider them as playoff contenders. Palmer’s arrival has at least recaptured some hope that the Raiders might grab the opportunity available to them this year.
In terms of the price paid, a win-now approach was necessary to grasp the chance to make the playoffs whilst the rest of the Division is so weak. We don’t know that next year the same opportunity will be there, so the draft choices dealt to Cincinnati are the opportunity cost associated with making this year important. Franchise owners have been accused in the past of letting the moment slip past, and Oakland were prepared to gamble not to let this moment drift away.
What is clear is that Oakland’s recent performance can’t all be laid at the door of their new recruit, regardless of the price paid to get him. He’s had to learn on the job, with a team built to run the ball in McFadden’s hands, but without the star running back there to do it, and all while the team has self-destructed with penalty yards.
All is not lost, and with Palmer rather than Boller under center, the Raiders have a much better chance of winning this year.
The Raiders should be praised for taking a gamble on a bold move, not castigated for risking it.
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