Before we discuss Carson Palmer, I’d like to reintroduce myself and let you know why I’m here.
I had an unforgettable 10 years in the NFL—six in Arizona and four with Denver. In 2006, I was lucky to retire on my own terms. While I could have kept playing, my heart wasn’t into it, and I knew I was done. You can’t do that to your teammates or fans, and you will get hurt if you don’t give it 100%, so that’s why I retired.
I never stopped loving the game, and these days I’m a huge fan, not of any team in particular—well, except for the Arizona State Sun Devils. But basically I love to watch, say, Derek Carr getting the ball with two minutes left and doing something special. I love to watch young kids excel and players and teams overcome adversity and fight back when all the odds are stacked against them.
After saying I would never go into broadcasting, the opportunity to do so came after being retired for five years. I joined the Pac-12 Network as an analyst and a little over a year ago started a weekly sports podcast that focuses on the NFL and college football because I wasn’t doing much aside from hanging out with my family, and I thought it would be a great way to rekindle those memories. Along the way, I’ve never stopped watching the NFL.
In this column, I’d like to share a different viewpoint on quarterback play from the perspective of having stood behind center with defenders coming at you, the media critiquing you and your teammates counting on you to perform. The normal fan hasn’t been in that position, so hopefully I can point out something you might have missed or give you something to look for the next time. Whatever I say in this column will be based on my experience and memories, plus coaching and techniques I may look for.
I'm also very excited to be doing this for Sports Illustrated in particular, as I was lucky enough to grace the cover of SI in 2003 and 2006. It was a childhood dream come true, and now I get to continue that relationship. But enough about me. Let’s talk about one of the most fascinating quarterbacks in the game today: Carson Palmer.
In Arizona, Palmer is in the perfect situation. It’s a great place to play. It’s sunny and warm, which is comforting for an older guy. Let’s face it: He’s 35 and in his 13th season, and in NFL years, that makes him old.
Although we play different styles of football, I’ve always been impressed by Carson’s ability to stand in the pocket and get the ball out quick, whether it be on the deep seam and deep over routes in the middle of the field or on some quick-hitters. Bruce Arians’s offense stretches the field and requires a quarterback to have a big gun.
Last Sunday against the Chicago Bears, Palmer made some really amazing throws and did a great job converting third downs. He cranked the ball on some deep overs, and his connection with Larry Fitzgerald seems to be as lethal as ever. Let’s check out what is happening during his three touchdowns to Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals are in the red zone on third-and-two and show a typical formation and motion for a run play. Fitzgerald's motion gets the defensive end (Pernell McPhee) to widen, creating a wider throwing lane. They run a counter fake with a pulling guard, and after a great fake on the drop and a beautifully timed route by Fitzgerald, easy touchdown.
Knowing coaching, Carson probably got a minus on his location, since Fitzgerald had to lay out on the catch. Coaches grade you with a plus or minus on every play, and even if the result is a touchdown, if you don’t take the proper drop or the location of the ball is off, you’ll get a minus. Accuracy in the red zone is vital, but if the same throw was made on your own 20-yard line, it could have prevented an 80-yard touchdown. All in all, it was a great play call resulting in six points for the Cards. Get the ball up next time, Carson.
Flea-flickers are fun. During this one, you can see when Carson wants to get the ball out. But the key to success on this play is the run fake and patience. Here, the Bears' defense—especially the free safety—bites on the run, thinking the Cardinals are running the ball to stay in field goal range.
These play calls are usually home run shots, but sometimes they get covered, and if the safety had kept his depth and didn’t bite on the run, John Brown was option No. 2 on a comeback and running back Chris Johnson would have been Carson's checkdown over the ball. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin was watching the defense and saw the free safety Adrian Amos getting nosey in the run game. You can see Palmer looking over toward the free safety, and as soon as the pitch comes back and the safety bites, he knows he has it. Phenomenal catch by Fitzgerald versus an overmatched linebacker whose only play was to interfere. That’s a QB trusting his All-Pro receiver.
Here you can see Arizona has a loaded front: five guys to the left of the center, setting up for a hard-nosed run to the left. A run play is called, with Palmer having the option to throw it to Fitzgerald if he sees the corner giving too much cushion (playing too far off the ball).
I used to run this play often with Rod Smith, sometimes throwing out a fake hand signal to mess with the defense. During this play, Carson turns to his running back to further convince the defense a run is coming, knowing all along he was going to throw it to Fitzgerald on a sit route, or whatever they call it.
This play requires trust between a QB and his receiver. It also builds chemistry knowing each player can trust the other one to make the right decision and then execute the play.
I also thought Palmer moved really well in the pocket and bought himself extra time to complete some big throws. When players get injured, I always look at their recovery and specifically how they move. Palmer looks to be moving really well. You have to work really hard to recover and comeback from any serious injury. When it’s a fast recovery, you just hope the rest of his body has caught up. So far, so good.
I’m rooting for Carson and the Cardinals organization. They treated me really well. We had a great 1998 season but suffered through some rough years afterwards. Now they have the right coach, and Steve Keim is a great general manager who has surrounded Carson with the types of players he needs to have a great end to his career.
Palmer’s legacy is set up to be one of patience, persistence, hard work and being a guy who has really led his teams. If the Cardinals can keep this going and Palmer can stay healthy, there is no reason he can’t lead these guys to the Super Bowl. I’ll be watching.