Former Cardinals QB Carson Palmer A Standout Outlier in Season Performance

Mason Kern

In light of former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton signing a one-year deal with the New England Patriots this past week to compete for another starting gig without Tom Brady at the helm, there has been a deep-dive on the statistical performances year-over-year throughout his career.

In combing over the details, Newton's 2015 MVP season was included as a standout outlier in a year where "everything came together for the quarterback," according to Pro Football Focus.

These outliers are measured upon the rate of the stability of negatively-graded throws compared to the fluctuations presented on positively-graded ones. As a result, throws that are graded positively are, more often than not, dependent on other factors of a situation such as receivers getting open, linemen initiating and finishing blocks and play-calling ingenuity.

In essence, the more these aspects come together, the more successful a quarterback is going to be. PFF claims that "the quarterback controls his negatives more than he controls his positives, and that’s why so many quarterbacks around the league can put up big seasons statistically in a good ecosystem — but it’s often difficult to sustain it."

Newton's MVP year was one that "bucked the trend" and saw him rank among the elite en route to a 15-1 regular-season campaign that ended 17-2 with a loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

That season, Newton had achieved the peak of his climb from 13th among all active starting quarterbacks in percentage of positively graded throws in 2011-12, to sixth in 2013 and second in 2014. However, after reaching the pinnacle, he has been no higher than sixth, which came in 2017. Of course, injuries have sabotaged his last two seasons.

"Newton’s 2015 season looks nothing like the rest of his career, though it showed off his potential as he put it all together for this one MVP campaign," PFF's Steve Palazzolo wrote. "After years of trying to get big-bodied receivers for Newton, this iteration of the Panthers' passing attack featured a healthier mix of size, speed and a versatile tight end in Greg Olsen. Newton had the highest percentage of positively graded throws in the league in 2015, and he’s finished in the top five just one other time in his career. This was a classic case of Newton not cutting down on his negatives, as he’s ranked between 22nd and 34th at avoiding negatives in every year of his career — 2015 was no different. The difference was Newton taking advantage of his increased opportunities down the field while also becoming an integral part of the designed run game. While Newton deserves credit for an incredible run during the 2015 season, it’s the only season in which he’s graded above 76.1 overall, highlighting that his career has been good, but not great or Hall-of-Fame worthy.

No individual was more personally affected by Newton's success in 2015 than former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. He had been in the top 10 of percentage of positively graded throws just twice since 2010 by that point — eighth in 2010 and ninth in 2013 — and had been traded to the Cardinals in April of the latter year. He led the team to a 10-6 record in his first year.

Then, in 2014, Palmer played in just six games due to injuries and was ranked 21st in positively graded throws. It all came together for him in 2015, though — just as it did for Newton — and he had arguably his best season with 35 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and a 13–3 record with a NFC West division title.

It was an outlier year that PFF likened to Newton's meteoric rise. That year, Palmer had accumulated an 88.8 PFF grade, whereas the second-best season score for his career was in 2006 when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals and had a 74.8 total.

"Palmer was right there with Newton in the MVP race in 2015, and he finished second in percentage of positively graded throws," Palazzolo wrote. "It was Palmer’s only top-five finish in that department, as he took advantage of perhaps the most well-rounded receiving corps in the league. Palmer had a deep threat in John Brown, a possession slot receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and a combo wideout in Michael Floyd. The Cardinals’ playmakers posted the highest receiving grade in the league and running back David Johnson was just the icing on the cake with his work out of the backfield. Much like (New York Giants quarterback Eli) Manning’s 2011 outlier, Palmer went from a career of below-average play against pressure to a season of highlight-reel pressure plays with defenders in his face. Palmer’s 81.0 PFF passing grade under pressure during the regular season was higher than any overall passing grade of his career, showing just how improbable and unlikely it would be to sustain that success. The 2015 version of Palmer was an incredible watch as he fired accurate passes downfield at a high rate, but it was clearly a small sample size of awesome that could not be duplicated."

Palmer was elected to his third Pro Bowl that season and was in the hunt for the MVP along with Newton and Brady. Inevitably, Palmer and Brady accumulated just one vote each and the former Panther won the award with 48 of 50 votes.

See PFF's other outliers here.