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A Quarterback and His Game Plan, Part I: Five Days to Learn 171 Plays

Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals allowed The MMQB inside the installation of the game plan for their Week 8 meeting with the Browns. How does a QB absorb and apply so much complexity—nearly 200 plays, plus all of their possible permutations and adjustments—in less than a week? Commitment and confidence help—and so does virtual reality

To the public, one of the mysteries of the NFL is the game plan, the weekly and oft-times encyclopedic secret document each team uses to strategize against that week’s foe. Quarterback Carson Palmer and coach Bruce Arians of the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals, the league’s second-highest-scoring offense, recently gave The MMQB a look into the formation of a game plan, and the quarterback’s absorption of it, before the team’s Nov. 1 meeting with the Browns in Cleveland. We’ll tell the story in two parts.

Part I: Learning the game plan … and why the Cardinals fixated on a play called Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide.

Part II: Game day in Cleveland … and what happens to the best-laid game plans.

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PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — There’s something placid about Carson Palmer. He’s unfazed by most distractions. It’s a trait that has served him well in 13 years as an NFL quarterback. So he is not particularly worried when the game plan for the following Sunday—which usually pops up on the screen of his tablet between 5 and 7 p.m. on Tuesdays—isn’t there by 7. There’s an easy explanation: The Cardinals played the previous night against Baltimore on Monday Night Football, and Arizona’s offensive staff, which worked some over the weekend to start game-planning for Cleveland, compressed two days into one so worker-bee offensive assistant Kevin Garver could cram through the details and get the document to Palmer, and he could start his nightly studying process.

Now at his house in the shadow of rugged Camelback Mountain, Palmer still has time to read a bedtime story to his 6-year-old twins, Fletch and Elle, and to 4-year-old daughter Bries. They pick out “Tickle Monster,” by Josie Bissett, perhaps because it calls for several tickling sessions by their dad. There’s a strong family feel to the Mission style home. On one wall is an artsy collection of 60 six-inch-square framed photos of family events, mostly documenting the three kids’ lives. “That’s Shaelyn,” Palmer says, nodding at his wife’s handiwork. “She is so creative.” Shaelyn finishes putting the kids to bed, and Palmer sits down at the desk in his home office, just off the kitchen. The game plan for Cleveland pops into his email at about 7:25 p.m. Good timing. Palmer needed to get going.

For the next 90 minutes, the 35-year-old quarterback with a better reputation than career record—150 starts: 75 wins, 75 losses—is mostly silent. This is not a group project, studying what Bruce Arians and the offensive staff have designed for the game five days away at Cleveland. “I know quarterbacks who can look at a formation once, a play once, the concept once, and they’ve got it,” Palmer says as he hand-writes a formation into a notepad. “Not me. I’ve got to study it over and over until I get it. It’s hard work, play after play.”

Once the game plan turns up in his inbox on Tuesday, Palmer sets down to a serious study session in his office at home in Paradise Valley.

Once the game plan turns up in his inbox on Tuesday, Palmer sets down to a serious study session in his office at home in Paradise Valley.

Multiply that times 171. That’s how many plays Arians will have in the offensive game plan for Cleveland. For each, there is a formation to learn, a personnel combination to learn, defensive tendencies to study—this with a virtual-reality headset that Palmer dons, making him look like a spaceman—plus details about what would cause Palmer to change the play at the line, and what to change into. And if the call is a pass play, Palmer must know his progression. Which receiver is his first option? Second? Third? Fourth?

Consider the difficulty of this week. The Cardinals are coming off a Monday night game against a team, Baltimore, that they hadn’t faced since before Arians and Palmer were united in Arizona in 2013. This week they will play a team neither man has faced since 2012, when the Browns had a different coach, two different coordinators and a mostly different roster. Because the road trip is a long one, the team will travel on Friday afternoon, compressing practice and prep time even more. Also troubling: Karlos Dansby, one of the smartest defensive players in recent Cardinals history, is now the defensive leader of the Browns; he knows a lot about Arizona’s play-calling tendencies.

And the massive whiteboard covering one entire wall in the coaches’ conference room—the one on which all 171 plays in this week’s game plan will be written down and organized? Not done yet. I’d seen it after 4 p.m. on this Tuesday, and Arians and the offensive coaches still had some plays to fill in.

After an hour or so buried in the game-plan diagrams, Palmer matter-of-factly says something that does not sound matter-of-fact when the words are spoken.

“I’m freaking out right now,” Palmer says, eyes buried in his notepad.

You’re what?

“Freaking out,” he says. “I have so much to do. But I’m weird. I’ll get it done. I always do. And I’ll get it done with plenty of time, and I will feel fantastic on Friday. That whiteboard you saw this afternoon, after I go through and I have digested everything? I’ll be money on those plays. I’ll know what I am doing versus every possible Cleveland pressure. If we get that pressure, we will gash that. By Friday when I go up and circle the plays I want, and I can sit down on the plane and study for the whole flight what I need to study and clean everything up, it’s just a very [audible sigh], weight off your shoulders when you know it.

“But saying that, I know this is weird, but I love the feeling of, ‘Man, I have so much s--- to do, and it’s already Tuesday and I’m a day behind.’ Does that make any sense? It’s not challenging to the point where I feel it’s too much, but it’s challenging to the point where, man, I just love it. And I’ll get this.”

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Before I leave the room, I notice a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” with the names of Palmer’s children inscribed on it, sitting on his desk. The words ring true to his life, and to his task each week—especially in losing weeks. They are words he wants his children to understand when life buffets them. In fact, he’s read it to them multiple times.

If you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
   And treat those impostors just the same;

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
   And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Kipling isn’t on Palmer’s mind now, not when he has 171 plays, plus all their permutations, to learn. But it does come in handy most autumn Sundays.

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The game plan is a collaborative affair, and Arians runs it the way most head coaches have done it for years. In the mid-’80s, Giants coach Bill Parcells used to tell defensive coordinator Bill Belichick at midday Tuesday to throw this out or that out, or that he was making it too complicated, or that he loved what Belichick had, and Belichick would finalize his plan after that talk. Arians does it much the same way—except that after offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin (run game) and assistant head coach Tom Moore (pass game) come to him with their concepts for the week, after some long hours Monday with their staff, Arians formats the offensive practices each day. Then, by the weekend, Arians sees what he likes from his own ideas and from how plays looked in practice. He picks the first 15 run plays. The first 15 passes get done differently in Arizona than in most places. Palmer picks them. After Arians IDs the passes he wants in the overall game plan, Palmer walks up to the whiteboard on Friday and puts a star next to the 15 he wants to run first; they become the first 15 passes. Palmer circles four of the 15, and those four become the passes he wants to call first in the game. Most coaches over time have adhered to the Bill Walsh philosophy of picking the first 15 offensive plays of the game. Arians picks 30, half run and half pass.

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“They’re his pass plays,” Palmer says. “I’m just picking the ones I want to come first.”

For a global view of a game plan, think local. It would be impossible for a layman to pick up the entirety of an NFL game plan in a week. But if you try to learn the concepts behind one play, and why this play appeals to the Cardinals, and why they think it will work against what they project the Browns to do, and the fail-safes that are in place when invariably the foe does something Palmer didn’t expect, then you can begin to understand the complexity of what NFL teams do every week.

So of the 171 plays, let’s focus on one. Let’s look at a play Arizona is likely to run against the Browns, and see why the Cardinals like it, why Arians thinks it will work and how they’ve set up the Browns in a sort of spy-versus-spy stratagem. And let’s see how Palmer studies it during the week and executes it Sunday, out in the real world of a stadium 2,066 miles away.

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Arians draws up the game plan on the whiteboard. His favorites—and his quarterback’s, too—are the Home Runs. (Image has been retouched to obscure play names.)

Arians draws up the game plan on the whiteboard. His favorites—and his quarterback’s, too—are the Home Runs. (Image has been retouched to obscure play names.)

In a conference room on the second floor of the Cardinals’ Southwest-motif headquarters in Tempe late Tuesday afternoon, Garver and assistant tight ends/special teams coach Steve Heiden sit at a long table, looking up at the whiteboard. Arians is seated at the end, wearing his trademark Kangol cap, pondering his practice plan for Wednesday. He wants to make sure every play counts in his three practices this week. Not only will the game plan be about 20 plays longer than the usual 150-play catalog he uses—Cleveland’s “rolodex of coverages,” as Palmer says, makes Arizona want more options in the game plan—but Arians will be coaching a team in a hurried week, against an opponent few on his team and staff are familiar with.

Observing Arians as the plan is being finalized, you realize there is no secret to the plays that are his pets. There is a section smack dab in the middle of the white board headed HOME RUN. It means exactly how it sounds: big shots, far downfield.

Arians picks out six Home Runs per week. This week, one of the Home Runs stands out above all: Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide. “I love the play this week,” Arians says.

Pistol means Palmer will take the snap four yards behind center. It’s a short shotgun snap. Strong tells the fullback (backup center A.Q. Shipley, in this case) to line up to the tight-end side of the formation. Right is the side the tight end will line up on, assuming the ball is spotted in the middle of the field or the right hash. Stack tells the two wide receivers on the play to line up in a stack to the opposite side of the formation from the tight end. Act 6 is the protection, telling the two backs which linebacker to block if the ’backers rush; the fullback will seal the tight-end side, while the running back will take the blitzer from the middle or weak side, if there is one. Y Cross Divide comprises the two routes run by the wide receivers. The Y, or slot receiver, will run a deep cross through the formation and hope to take a safety with him, while the split end in the stack will run a divide route; that means the split end, likely Larry Fitzgerald, will run a stutter-and-go, running maybe seven yards downfield, faking toward the sideline, then sprinting downfield. The route is divided into two segments, the first ending in the deke to the right, and then the go.

Just one of 171 plays the Cardinals installed for their game with Cleveland.

Just one of 171 plays the Cardinals installed for their game with Cleveland.

“You pretty sure you’ll run it this week?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” Arians says. “It ties into what we did last week running the ball. We’ll take one of the runs they’ve seen with A.Q. in the backfield, and we’ll run play-action off it instead of a run. It’s a concept, a play, our quarterback and receivers know, but we haven’t run it out of this formation or this set. Larry’s really good on the [divide] route. Plus, it’s a seven-man protection, so we’ve got probably 3 to 3.5 seconds for Carson to get rid of it.”

The play stands out for several reasons. One: Cleveland safety Donte Whitner is very aggressive. If he sees Shipley in the backfield, his study of the Cards is likely going to lead him to think it’s a running play. So Whitner could cheat toward the line, thinking it’s a run, or he could blitz to cram the line of scrimmage, or he could stay back in coverage. “He’s all over film, getting his eyes in the backfield when he never should,” Palmer says. Two: The Y receiver would be either of the two young Arizona speedsters, John Brown or J.J. Nelson, and the likelihood of one darting across the formation would cause the remaining safety, Tashaun Gipson, to shade toward helping the Cleveland cornerback over the top on Brown or Nelson. Three: Arizona tight end Jermaine Gresham, running a short cross opposite and underneath the Y cross, would likely be picked up by a linebacker and be open. Four: Fitzgerald isn’t the fastest receiver on the field, but as Arians says, he runs a heck of an out-and-up; if Palmer has the time, Fitzgerald on a corner would be tempting, because he’d likely gain half a step on the corner with the fake.

Then there’s the set-up factor. When the Browns watch Shipley enter the game as a blocker in the backfield, they’ll note that he’s done so eight times in the previous four games (most teams study an opponent’s previous four games), and the Cardinals ran the ball on seven of those eight snaps.

Still, Palmer isn’t sure the Browns will buy the run. “They could play it a lot of different ways,” he says. “They might feel like a shot downfield is coming.”

“Why would they?” I ask. “Shipley in the game, you’ve been running out of that formation, tight end tight to the formation who could be blocking there. Could be seven-man protection.”

“Because Bruce is calling the plays,” Palmer says.

Of course. Arians loves the deep shots. That’s a big reason why Palmer, through nine games, would lead all NFC quarterbacks in yards per pass play—8.93 yards per attempt. Palmer and Arians are perfect for each other. Palmer throws a gorgeous deep ball, and Arians, not a fan of the move-the-chains West Coast offense, wants to throw deep more than any other coach in football. On this play, Palmer believes one of three receivers, Fitzgerald or Gresham or Brown/Nelson, will be open for a big gain. By watching Cleveland tape, and by using virtual reality later in the week to study the tendencies of his scout team when the play is run, Palmer hopes to be prepared for what he’s likely to face when, or if, the play gets called on Sunday.

“I would love to get single-high man, because then you get that crossing combination that’s tough to cover both guys on,” Palmer says. That would mean only one deep safety, with the other either down in the box or blitzing or in some shallow coverage. “I love play-action, and I love the Home Runs. I love throwing go’s.”

The play fits Arizona so well. Arians loves it. Palmer wants to call it. The only question as Tuesday night gets late is: How long would it take on Sunday for Arians to dial it up? And what would Cleveland do to defend it?

“You just never know,” Palmer says. “That’s really the beauty of football. You spend all this money and take all this time to try to figure out what the defense is going to do. We’re even using virtual reality now. All the resources that get taken up—amazing. You think you have a great idea, but in the end, so many times, you’re just guessing, and you guess wrong.”

Enough excitement for Tuesday night. Before he goes to bed, Palmer will have to commit to memory 14 different protections he’d use Sunday to try to keep the Browns out of his hair.

Fourteen protections. And that was only for first-down calls.

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“I don’t buy in to all the new technology, but I am all in on this.” Palmer with the STRIVR virtual reality headset.

“I don’t buy in to all the new technology, but I am all in on this.” Palmer with the STRIVR virtual reality headset.

Wednesday is monotonous. Palmer and backups Drew Stanton and Matt Barkley go over every run play in the game plan, left to right, 9 hole (outside the left tackle) to 8 hole (outside the right tackle). It’s a big installation day, and Arians runs through the game plan, installing everything with the offensive team.

Pistol Strong is a hit. The Cards will practice it twice during the week. It’s often surprising to hear NFL players talk about a huge play that won a game. They might say, “Yeah, we ran that once is practice, and it didn’t work that well; I didn’t think we’d run it today.” Or they could say, “That was in a game plan five weeks ago, and during a timeout, Coach said, ‘Hey, let’s try it now.’ ” There are too many plays, with too many tributaries to each, for a team to practice every play eight or 10 times. But on Wednesday at practice, Palmer runs Pistol Strong and hits Fitzgerald for a deep touchdown. On Thursday at practice, Palmer runs it again and hits Gresham for a gain of about 30. “I’ve seen from the way our scout team’s played it that we also could get a gain to our back too,” Palmer says Thursday night. “Really confident in that play.”

The rest of the week, for Palmer, is a cross between education and rest. All he can think of on Wednesday is mastering the protections against a team he doesn’t know. He goes in at 5:15 Thursday morning to finish his study of the Cleveland rush. I ask him what he’s thinking about—what exactly is going through his head, as he plows his way through this week. “Well,” he says, and then, in fairly rapid fire:

“I know what I want to do on kick two versus will free safety. Now will free safety, in every kick two, they are all three-by-one formations, so on every kick two, I’ll go back through and I will say, ‘Okay, on all these kick two, they are all three-by-one. When I do have an issue, and I do have to do something to it, because it is will free safety, or will corner and now that I’ve leftied it or I’ve lizzed it, now where is my best chance to get a completion? And then the most important thing for me to do is go, where am I screwed? Versus what coverage? Right now, I’m telling you right now, versus six strong, that’s the worst possible coverage I can get for this play. So I know I have a touchdown right here versus seam, I know I can throw this versus single high, weak or strong rotation. I know I can throw it versus two-man—he’s going to flash for me. But if I get six strong, I have to give it to the back.”

It’s a foreign language. That’s why learning the ins and outs of 171 plays Arians has drawn up would be fruitless—and require a glossary the size of a Merriam-Webster dictionary. So we’ll stick with Pistol Strong.

Palmer, however, has no such luxury. He is up until 11 on Thursday night— “like cramming for a final,” he says—then sets the alarm for Friday morning at 5:10. When the alarm goes off, his brain says, “No way.” He re-sets it for 5:50. “I need close to seven hours [of sleep] or I’m not thinking right,” he says. He gets up and French-presses his favorite coffee from a roaster in Cincinnati (don’t believe the hype—Palmer has lots of good memories and takeaways from his seven seasons with the Bengals), and is in the facility by 6:45.

Palmer puts on the STRIVR oculus—the virtual-reality headset—for 20 minutes so he can review a few plays from Thursday’s practice. He says he’s a dinosaur, the only member of the offense who needs the playbook in a thick three-ring binder instead of exclusively on a tablet. And he says he fought using the virtual-reality device for weeks last summer when the Cardinals became one of the first NFL teams to adopt the technology. A 360-degree camera is placed on a thin tripod next to the quarterback at practice, and it’s designed to see everything he sees, so that when Palmer puts the headset on he can move his head in any direction and watch, exactly at the moment, everything happening around him. After Palmer walks off the practice field on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, he uses the STRIVR system to spot blitz keys. He also has a unit at home that he hooks up to a laptop. The screen is smaller, but the experience is still immersive enough to get a good look at what the scout-team defense is bringing.

“It’s phenomenal,” Palmer says. “I don’t buy in to all the new technology, I’m archaic, and I thought, There is no way this can change the way I play quarterback. But I am all in on this. I’ll watch pressures on this during the week, and I swear I have flashbacks from a game, seeing the same pressures. The other thing that is cool about it is watching mechanics, because I can put the camera behind me. So if I’m in the pocket standing one way, I can put the camera behind me, I can have it to my right and to my left, and I can watch my feet. I can watch my arm whip at different angles and make sure my elbow is in the right spot. I can watch my feet stepping into throws, and I can go back and see complete or incomplete. Am I putting the ball in the right spot? Was it on his face or was it low back hip? You can accurately see where you missed a throw, or you can see why that throw was so good, because you can see yourself transferring weight and stepping into it.”

“I was a naysayer in the beginning too,” says Stanton, Palmer’s backup and confidant. “But to be able to look side to side and see exactly what you’ll see in game conditions, to feel what you feel under the pressure of the clock, it’s leaps and bounds better than anything you can do to prepare for a game.”

“It’s funny,” Palmer says. “The kids like to play with it. Trying to keep the kids off it at home is a whole other problem.”

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The day before the Browns game, Palmer has his study materials all set up in his Cleveland-area hotel room.

The day before the Browns game, Palmer has his study materials all set up in his Cleveland-area hotel room.

The home stretch. On the flight to Cleveland, Palmer sits alone. He puts what he calls “background music” on his noise-cancelling headphones. On this trip: Canadian hip-hop group Double X and California singer/songwriter Donavon Frankenreiter. For three hours Palmer concentrates on two things. He watches the Denver-Cleveland game from Oct. 18, because he likes to watch how pocket quarterbacks who played the upcoming opponent recently have fared and how the opponent’s secondary played. Then he watches every third-down snap of the year by Cleveland’s defense. He wants to see every coverage the Browns have played on third down. “Very little man [coverage],” he says. “Lots of fire zones, lots of single-high zones, like I expected. Particularly valuable: Palmer notices how Karlos Dansby, in coverage across the middle, likes to lurk before jumping crossing routes. “When Larry runs into his zone,” Palmer thinks, “I’ve got to be patient and hold the ball until the right time.”

The Cardinals stay at the Intercontinental Hotel, east of downtown Cleveland. Palmer got nine hours of sleep on Friday night and feels great. “My goal on Saturday,” he says, “is to always find something in the game plan I don’t feel comfortable with, and get completely comfortable with it. With Cleveland, they do so much walk-around stuff [defenders not setting themselves before the snap], and because guys have been hurt, we haven’t gotten familiar with the numbers.”

By that he means that cornerback Joe Haden, number 23, has been seen in only one of the previous four games because of injury. Haden is supposed to play this week, but Palmer also has to study tendencies of number 26, Pierre Desir, who could play the slot or left corner, and also number 24, Johnson Bademosi. He expects number 36, K’Waun Williams, to stay in the slot. Palmer would rather see the same two numbers—23 to his right (Haden), 22 (Tramon Williams) to his left—on most every play, but he knows he has to prepare for whoever plays. With a team he never sees, learning the numbers is another brick in the wall.

On Saturday morning Palmer covers his bed in Room 624 of the Intercontinental with a ton of information: the 171-play plan, the situation-by-situation list of plays in the game plan, his notebook with color-coded handwritten notes on formations and coverages, color photos from the Microsoft Surface tablets of some Cleveland coverages he expects to encounter (so he can familiarize himself one last time with Browns tendencies), loose-leaf sheets with his handwritten formations of plays he hopes to call, his tablet and his copy of the Arians call sheet. He studies it all for a couple of hours, getting comfortable with his favored plays in various down-and-distance scenarios—third and two-to-three yards, third and seven-to-10, etc. He goes to chapel at 7:30 in the evening, then meets with Arians at 8, telling him his preferences for all situations. On his laminated play sheet, Arians notes Palmer’s plays.

“I love that time with him on Saturday night,” Palmer says. “I always want more. But he’s the head coach. He’s got so much to do. He’s heavily involved in personnel, so the only time we get to sit down is Saturday nights. I would love to have 30 minutes a day and say, ‘Why is this in?’ So I’ll come up with 15 questions and try to figure out which ones are the dumbest, and I’ll get rid of those, and then I’ll go to him with, like, three. I’ll try to figure out which questions I really need answers to.”

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On this night there’s a trick play in the game plan. (It ended up not being called, and the Cardinals still might use it, so I won’t describe it here.) Palmer needs to know exactly when it’s to be called off before the snap if he doesn’t like what he sees, and that’s one of the issues he settles with Arians on Saturday night.

Palmer’s voice is calm on Saturday evening. No surprise there. The “freaking out” of Tuesday has graduated into “very comfortable with everything” as darkness falls in northeast Ohio. There is one other thing, with the game now hours away: the fate of Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide.

“Hey,” Palmer says at the hotel, “we like your play. We’re gonna call it in the first three or four series.”

PART II—VIRTUAL REALITY MEETS REALITY: Peter King on how Pistol Strong Right and the rest of the Cardinals’ game plan fared when it met live conditions and a real-life opponent.