Breaking Down the Carson Palmer-Larry Fitzgerald Connection

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2013

GLENDALE, AZ - JULY 29:  Quarterback Carson Palmer #3 (R) of the Arizona Cardinals directs wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 (L) during the team training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium on July 29, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Over the past decade or so, Bruce Arians has spent time working with exceptionally gifted quarterbacks. His work with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, combined with his short spell as the interim coach of the Indianapolis Colts, was what ultimately landed him the Arizona Cardinals head coaching position.

Whether coincidental or by design, Arians is taking over a franchise that hasn't seen decent quarterback play since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season.

Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer have all started games in the regular season at quarterback since Warner retired. Not a single one of those quarterbacks achieved anything close to a consistent level of performance on the field. The former regime, led by Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves, only aggressively acquired Kolb from the above list.

When Kolb failed to make the position his own, the team was left with a fifth-round pick, an undrafted free agent, a low priority free-agent addition, a waiver-wire addition and a sixth-round draft pick. That left the offense with an an ambiguous identity and no true starter for long stretches.

As soon as Arians took over, along with new general manager Steve Keim, the Cardinals immediately signed Drew Stanton in free agency before trading for Carson Palmer. Stanton was a small priority free agent, and Palmer only cost the team a sixth-round pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in 2014.

Even though both of those moves were cheap in price, they were much different to the acquisitions of the previous regime because Stanton has a previous relationship with Arians and Palmer is a proven veteran.

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While the Cardinals are not exactly expected to contend for the Super Bowl this season, they are also not fully committed to a rebuilding effort. For that reason, Palmer is expected to start despite the fact that he is 33 years old.

After years of dealing with young, ineffective quarterbacks, having Palmer should breathe some fresh air and optimism into the Cardinals. Even more important than that, however, it should allow superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to return to his very best.

It takes an exceptionally poor offense to squash the production of such an outstanding talent. Fitzgerald may not be the same star he was during his prime, but at just 29 years of age (30 before the start of the season), he can still claim to be one of the very best receivers in the NFL.

That claim will likely fall on deaf ears because few put credence in the player who not so long ago set an outlandishly high record for receiving yards in a single postseason.

Fitzgerald fought through bad quarterback play admirably over the past six seasons. He had five straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards from 2007 to 2011, with more than 1,400 yards in 2011. However, last season his quarterback finally caught up to him as he finished the season with 71 receptions for 798 yards and just four touchdowns.

It's easy to argue that Fitzgerald shouldn't be allowed to make excuses for his poor production, not that he ever does, but the reality is that there's only so much he can do. Even as one of the best receivers in the league, the nature of the position makes every receiver dependent on their quarterback to a very large extent.

In order to find out just how much Fitzgerald was missing out on by playing for the Cardinals last season, the opportunities he was afforded must be analyzed in detail.

Fitzgerald was targeted 153 times last season, with two of those targets negated by accepted penalties. On those targets he caught 73 passes, 71 officially, for a catch rate of 47 percent. A relatively unimpressive number. Of course, that number is as unimpressive as it is irrelevant in this case because very often Fitzgerald was dealing with targets that no receiver would reel in.

Of Fitzgerald's 153 targets, almost unfathomably, only 88 were catchable. When you assess Fitzgerald's receptions in relation to his catchable targets opposed to all of his targets, his ratio almost doubles.

For a target to be deemed uncatchable, the primary reason for the result of the play had to be placed on the quarterback. Therefore, drops from the receiver or plays when the defensive back punched the ball out of the receiver's grasp were considered catchable. Plays that drew pass interference were also marked down as catchable.

The chart above highlights just how poor the overall quarterback play in Arizona was, but it also critically points out just how catastrophic those quarterbacks were when trying to get the ball deep to Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald can run any route, make receptions in different body positions and absorb big hits over the middle of the field. Throughout his career his one trait that terrifies defensive backs is his ability to beat defenders down the field with his combination of size, speed and aggression.

Deep balls in the above chart needed to travel 18 yards from the line of scrimmage in order to qualify. On those throws, the Cardinals combined for an exceptionally poor 30.5 percent. A drop-off will always come with deeper attempts, but that number is debilitating for Fitzgerald.

He still caught seven of those 11 deep targets, but outside of the numbers there was a very problematic part of the passing attack that came clear...outside of the numbers.

None of the Cardinals quarterbacks from last season had the accuracy to throw the ball down the sideline. Because Fitzgerald can use his strength and ball skills to easily overwhelm defenders in single coverage, those types of throws are the ones that best suit his skill set.

Instead, Fitzgerald was forced to make plays inside where he was more likely to take greater punishment from arriving safeties, and the potential for turnovers multiplied. For that reason, it's no surprise that the Arizona quarterbacks threw a league leading, via ProFootballFocus, 12 interceptions when targeting Fitzgerald during the 2012 season.

Furthermore, twice during the season he was missed on throws when he was wide open in the end zone, and only one of his four touchdowns came from an incisive throw from the quarterback.

Fitzgerald caught one screen for a touchdown, had two plays that were defined by Fitzgerald's ability to run after the catch, and the other was his single impressive play from when Kevin Kolb hit him with a deep ball against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Accuracy was obviously a major issue for the quarterbacks last season, but even the above charts don't paint the whole picture.

While Fitzgerald's targets were broken down into catchable and uncatchable, there are varying levels of how accurate a pass is within those sections. Many of Fitzgerald's receptions came on inaccurate passes that prevented him from gaining yards after the catch, exposed him to big hits and asked him to make difficult adjustments that led to dropped passes.

Against the St. Louis Rams in Week 12, Fitzgerald was lined up in the slot.

Fitzgerald ran a shallow crossing route against zone coverage. He came free underneath because the wide receiver coming from the other side of the field created a natural pick on the linebacker. Fitzgerald was free for one of the easiest throws that a quarterback can make when he's not under pressure.

Lindley wasn't under any pressure, but...

His poor footwork meant that his pass ultimately arrived high and behind Fitzgerald's head. Lindley didn't need to lead Fitzgerald far across the field because there was a linebacker arriving, but he also didn't need to put it so far behind his receiver. Fitzgerald does well to get both hands on the football, but he was unable to bring it in, and it ultimately popped into the air where it could have been intercepted.

The pass was marked down as catchable, but it's very difficult to give the quarterback any real credit for this play.

Accuracy is a very important aspect of every throw. With a wide receiver like Fitzgerald, you need less accuracy because of his outstanding ball skills and wingspan. With less gifted or shorter receivers, you need to be more accurate to consistently complete passes. Last season in Oakland, Palmer didn't have a Larry Fitzgerald, and his most talented receiver was just 6'0".

In spite of that, his deep passing was still dramatically better than the Cardinals quarterbacks' deep passing last season.

Not only does Palmer throw more accurate passes with greater velocity, he is able to consistently hit receivers down either sideline, which should bring Fitzgerald's greatest strength back into play. Palmer's very first deep attempts of the season were much more impressive than any throw made by an Arizona quarterback during the season before.

Palmer's ability to throw deep is obviously a massive upgrade for the Cardinals, but it is also just a snapshot of his skill set. It will be vital in Bruce Arians' scheme, but Palmer's ability to handle pressure and not turn the ball over will also be very important.

In Oakland, he played with a very talented left tackle and center in Jared Veldheer and Stefen Wisniewski. However, the rest of the pieces around those two players were very poor and had Palmer repeatedly under pressure or making quick throws. He proved that he could still be productive despite playing behind a poor offensive line. That is very important for the Cardinals.

Over the second half of his career, Palmer has developed a reputation that is synonymous with throwing interceptions. More precisely, throwing interceptions at the wrong times. Palmer's reputation is similar to that of an ambulance driver who collects patients, gets them to the hospital in excellent time, but then crashes into the wall of the building.

That perception may be accurate, but it's something that teams can work around to lessen his exposure in those situations, and it didn't show up as a major problem when analyzing his interceptions from the 2012 season.

Palmer threw 14 interceptions on 565 attempts last season. Numbers that are good enough for a 2.47 percent rate, or one interception for every 40 attempts. Four of Palmer's interceptions were results of outside influences (like when the quarterback made an accurate throw, such as an interception that came when the receiver dropped the pass).

More importantly, only two of his interceptions came late in a game when he forced a throw with the game on the line, and two more came when he forced a throw with the game already decided.

Under the same analysis, the Cardinals quarterbacks came off dramatically worse.

For the Cardinals, there doesn't appear to be any negative in swapping their past quarterbacks out for Palmer. His only real drawback is that he is 33 years old. He appears to still have the physical talents to keep playing for three seasons or maybe more, but the Cardinals will need to protect him better than they have their previous players at the position.

At the very least, Fitzgerald should return to being one of the more productive players in the NFL this season.

Fitzgerald may have been 25 when he set the playoff record for receiving yards in a single season, but even at 30 he should still have more than enough athleticism to continue prospering.

His ludicrous 546 yards in four games during that playoff run is overlooked for many reasons. Probably the most significant is the quarterback play in Arizona, but also the team's record, Aaron Rodgers' record playoff run and the emergence of Calvin Johnson.

At the very least entering this season, one of those reasons to overlook Fitzgerald should disappear completely.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf