Both punts were of the three-and-out variety. Both interceptions gave the San Francisco 49ers possession inside the red zone. However, the defense held the 49ers to two three-and-outs following the punts while the picks resulted in a pair of field goals.
Disaster successfully averted.
Being down 6-0 after a start like that when it could easily have been at least 14-0 could be the reason coach Bruce Arians kept Palmer in the game.
Rather than pulling his starter, who had thrown nine interceptions in his past 12-plus quarters, Arians instead had backup Drew Stanton replace his usual official team baseball cap with a helmet.
The message to Palmer was clear: Play better or sit and watch.
He heard the message and let it fuel him, rebounding to play a solid game against Arizona’s biggest division rival. It did not result in a win, but the breakdown of his afternoon says it all:
Yes, he was sacked in the end zone, counting as a safety for San Francisco that gave them the lead back, 8-7. But that play was insignificant in terms of the outcome of the game, and it was the only time Palmer went down the entire game.
He had the offense in position to take the lead late in the third quarter after connecting with wideout Larry Fitzgerald on a hot route. The 49ers blitzed cornerback Carlos Rodgers from the slot Fitz occupied, and Palmer read it perfectly, finding his No. 1 receiver wide open.
But Fitzgerald fumbled after being hit by inside linebacker Patrick Willis, and the 49ers recovered.
Down 22-20 with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter, San Francisco starting the ensuing drive at its own 11-yard line. A defensive stop would have wiped out the memory of the fumble and kept some of the momentum on Arizona’s sideline.
That is not what happened.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick instead made the fumble the turning point of the game, leading a back-breaking 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that dragged on and on, taking 9:32 off the clock and the remaining wind out of Arizona’s sails.
“I’m not going to sleep at all,” Fitzgerald told AZCardinals.com after the game. “I let my team down.”
You can count on one hand the number of fumbles Fitzgerald has lost throughout his career (4). He had not lost a fumble since 2007—nearly six years to the day of this fumble, a Week 6 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 14, '07. That’s nearly 84 months, 365 weeks or 2,556 days between lost fumbles, to put into perspective his immaculate ball security.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, running back Alfonso Smith fumbled on his only carry of the game on the second play of the very next possession. That begs the question of why Smith was on the field in the first place with six minutes to go and down nine, and not Rashard Mendenhall or Andre Ellington—but that’s for another column.
The fact is that after the horrific start, Palmer played great football in leading his team back from a two-score deficit three different times on Sunday. That Arians had the confidence to stick with his quarterback after such a terrible 13-quarter stretch says all that needs to be said about Palmer and the faith his head coach has in him.
He even has the continued support of his general manager, Steve Keim, who said following the win over Carolina that Palmer works hard to correct mistakes, per Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:
When you have a player who is relatively unknown, I think sometimes you go through the bumps in the road and you wonder how he is going to respond... You wonder if he is ever going to respond. Whereas when Carson doesn’t play particularly well, I still feel confident he has the ability to right the ship and come back and play well for us again.
I know kind of what drives him, and after the game he had against Carolina [1 TD, 3 INT, 57.0 rating], I know he’s the kind of guy who is going to come into the office and put in all the extras and put in the work and try and correct his mistakes.
Arians shared a similar notion on Palmer, saying the 11-year veteran doesn’t let mistakes linger:
That’s the silver lining so far is that through the problems, the interceptions or whatever, the lack of offense, he doesn’t get frustrated... He’s always on the bench with (assistant coaches) Tom (Moore) and Freddie (Kitchens), and going to the next series, and he stays very positive and lets it go.
A lot of young guys, they keep reflecting and looking in the rear-view mirror, "I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that," but that’s over with. (Carson) knows how to go on to the next play.
That’s just what he did Sunday at Candlestick Park following his two first-quarter interceptions. He was cool, calm and collected on the sideline. Seeing him after INT No. 2, a person couldn’t tell that he had just thrown his second interception in 10 minutes. He was already over it while sitting next to Moore going over plays.
The best thing about Palmer is that he won’t stop throwing into tight windows. That may seem like a bad thing considering his 11 interceptions through six games, but it’s the opposite.
Consider this: If Palmer started doubting his ability after his second interception, he would not have gone out three plays later and threaded the needle between two defenders with a rope to Fitz. He may have double-pumped and looked elsewhere, giving rookie defensive end Corey Lemonier—who was barreling down on him at the time he released the ball—time to notch his first career sack.
As we know, he threw a dart, and Fitzgerald took it 75 yards to the house.
That is one difference between Palmer and every quarterback who started a game for Arizona from 2010 to 2012: None of them were confident enough in their ability to make the tight throw after throwing a pick.
We saw all of them begin second-guessing themselves after making mistakes, and it’s part of the reason why the line was so terrible over that stretch.
From 2007 to 2009, the three seasons in which Kurt Warner was the primary starter, Arizona’s offensive line surrendered a total of 78 sacks, which was sixth-fewest during that three-year stretch. Over the most recent three-year stretch, however, no team allowed more sacks than the Cardinals did—a staggering 162.
Before Sunday’s game, Palmer had taken 12 sacks through five games. He was on pace to take about 38 sacks this season—far below the 54-per-season pace of the past three years.
With one sack Sunday, that has dropped to about a 35-sack pace, which is just about the middle of the pack in the NFL.
At some point, Palmer and the offense will get it going this season. The sooner the better, but considering he led three touchdown drives against the 49ers that covered 221 yards on 15 plays (14.8 yards per play on those drives), perhaps it got going without an official announcement.
Let’s hope that is the case, because Arizona is in the middle of its most difficult part of the schedule. The team can ill-afford a string of losses right now—especially with how well the defense is playing.