In a year where the Cardinals have defied the numbers, Carson Palmer continues to defy father time. I was skeptical of Arizona's chances heading into the season, noting how they barely managed to outscore opponents during the 2014 campaign and were 4-1 in close games, the hallmarks of teams that fail to live up to their previous success.
Instead, the Cardinals have drastically improved their level of play. Their win over the Vikings on Thursday night brought them again to a 4-1 record in one-score games, but even beyond those contests, this is a much-improved team. They're outscoring the opposition by 11.8 points per game, notable for a team that outscored their schedule by only 11 points over all of last season.
Yes, Pro Bowl-caliber seasons from Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have revitalized the Arizona defense, but the biggest reason that the Cardinals have dominated their opposition this year is the play of Palmer, who is grossly exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. Palmer is beating defenses with chunk-yardage plays, and he's doing so with consistent accuracy. This isn't just a guy taking more shots down the field, this is like a perennial .300 hitter who will club 20 more home runs without striking out more.
The Cardinals outscored their opponents by nine points per game last year with Palmer at the helm, so it wasn't as if the idea that he could be this great was totally foreign, but it was reasonable to expect Palmer to take a step backward this year. Instead, he has been a viable MVP candidate.
The 2014 version of Palmer was a decent quarterback with a nifty, small-sample-size trick. Here are his rate statistics from the five seasons and three teams he suited up for leading into 2015. I'm also going to include his pro-football-reference.com indexed figure for each stat, which adjusts each stat for that season's context and expresses it on a scale where 100 is average.
You'll see what I mean from this table:
You can see how Palmer had been remarkably consistent in terms of completing passes and, 2011 aside, about league average in terms of what those passes generated. His big problem from 2010 to 2013 had been interceptions; the only quarterbacks in the league in that time frame who had thrown interceptions more frequently over 1,000 passes than Palmer (3.5 percent) were Ryan Fitzpatrick (3.5 percent) and Eli Manning (3.7 percent).
In 2014, Palmer threw 224 passes across six starts. Using that 3.5 percent interception rate, we would have expected him to throw 7.8 picks. He threw three. It was the most impressive thing about Palmer's season last year, and given how it was out of character for him given his recent track record (and Bruce Arians' style of offense), it would have been difficult to project Palmer to avoid giveaways like he did last season.
That's without even getting to the physical factors that seemed to portend a Palmer decline. He missed 10 starts and Arizona's playoff loss to Carolina with two debilitating injuries. After narrowly beating the Chargers in Week 1, Palmer missed three starts with a mysterious nerve issue in his shoulder. He came back and won his next five starts before suffering a torn ACL late in a Week 10 victory over the Rams, ending his season.
Of course, the knee injury was Palmer's second ACL tear, since he'd blown out his knee against the Steelers during the 2005 playoffs. The injury sapped Palmer's confidence, and while he returned to form, a subsequent elbow injury took away some of his arm strength. The mobile, athletically-gifted first overall pick had to get by on guile at times. Even a healthy 36-year-old would expect to decline based on quarterbacks' traditional aging curves, and a battered quarterback like Palmer should have expected a notable dropoff.
Instead, Palmer is having his best season since that fateful 2005 campaign, which announced his presence as a superstar before the torn ACL changed everything. His interception rate hasn't stayed at 1.3 percent, but with nine picks on 435 attempts, Palmer's 2.0 percent rate is still better than league average. He's completing 64.2 percent of his passes, which would be his best figure since 2007, but even that produces an index figure of 107. That's good, but it's not out of character given his accuracy over the past few seasons.
The difference between this year's Palmer and the guy from the past several seasons is that he grabs fistfuls of yards with each pass attempt and refuses to settle for anything less. Palmer is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt this season, a career high and a figure worthy of a 140 Y/ATT index. He's not the Palmer from 2014. He's something more like Steve Young during his peak with the 49ers, admittedly without the mobility.
Palmer gets those yards by operating in Arians' downfield passing attack, which attacks in virtually every situation. Remember that the Cardinals threw deep on third down late in a tie game before kicking a long field goal Thursday night. Palmer's average pass travels 10.35 yards in the air, the third-longest average in football. Only Ben Roethlisberger (10.74 air yards/pass) and Cam Newton (10.38) outpace Palmer on average throw length.
This isn't anything new for Arians; Palmer's average pass distance was similarly long in 2013 and 2014. The difference is that the Cardinals are getting more out of those deeper throws. The NFL defines deep passes as ones that travel 16 yards or more in the air. Palmer has thrown 114 such passes this season, the most of any quarterback in football. He's completing 51.8 percent of those throws, second in the league to Andy Dalton, and has thrown 13 touchdowns against six picks. Two years ago, with a similar volume of deep passes (123 in 16 games), he completed 42.3 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (eight).
The degree of difficulty in these throws actually takes the steady figures I mentioned earlier and makes them more impressive than they might look. Completing 64.2 percent of your passes and throwing picks 2.0 percent of the time is one thing if you're Alex Smith or Sam Bradford, who throw their typical pass less than seven yards in the air. Palmer's average pass is harder to complete and easier to intercept. Again, it's the power surge for the guy who could already challenge for a batting title.
In part because of the degree of difficulty he faces going into his typical pass attempt, Palmer is graded by QBR as the best quarterback in football this season. It's a down year for quarterback play in general, but Palmer's 83.6 figure is the best in the league by a comfortable margin. The only other passers who top the 70.0 mark in 2015 are Roethlisberger (77.1 in eight games) and Dalton (74.4). Last year, nine passers crossed the 70-point threshold.
That's not in itself enough to grant that Palmer is the best quarterback in football and worthy of your MVP vote, but it's a strong piece of evidence. It's a remarkable turnaround for a quarterback who struggled for years with injuries before being dumped off to the Cardinals by the Raiders for what amounted to salary-cap relief. It would only be fair to give the award to Newton, who is the quarterback of an undefeated football team with Ted Ginn Jr. as a starting wideout in December. And it's entirely possible that Palmer could get hurt on a bad sack and the Cardinals be out their starting quarterback when they need him most for the second consecutive season. At the moment, though, both the Cardinals and their star quarterback are defying the historical odds to produce magical seasons.