Why Carson Palmer's season is MVP-worthy
The fact that Carson Palmer is playing well is no secret. As the quarterback of the 7-2 Arizona Cardinals, his record in the desert speaks for itself, and yet his performance this season is being overshadowed and not receiving the kind of recognition it truly deserves.
The Cardinals have the league’s second-highest scoring offense, and the team with the highest —the New England Patriots—leads by just a single point. The Cardinals are actually averaging 2.4 yards more per game, and yet the Patriots are the team with a monopoly on the MVP talk.
Tom Brady and Carson Palmer are both playing spectacular football, carrying their offenses like no other player, with the possible exception of Cam Newton in Carolina, and doing so with two completely different schemes and philosophies at work. This is not a one-name conversation.
Brady’s raw statistics are a little bit better, but that alone does not make him MVP by default, and we need to look beyond simple stats when analyzing quarterback play above all other positions.
This is not supposed to be a Tom Brady takedown piece—I’ve learned my lesson there—so I’ll put this up front and in bold before we go on: Tom Brady is having maybe the best season of his Hall of Fame career, playing spectacular football, and I have no issue with anybody who believes him to be MVP. This is meant to point out that any gap between Brady and Palmer is not a large one, and base stats alone do not do the job of splitting the two players.
The New England and Arizona offenses are poles apart on the spectrum of modern NFL passing attacks. The Patriots’ spread teams out horizontally and move the chains through a series of accurate and precise short passes. They kill teams with a thousand paper-cuts before opening up with an occasional deep shot, which Brady has been unusually efficient with this season.
The Cardinals, by contrast use the deep pass as a staple of their offense. While Brady’s average depth of target is just 7.7 yards down field—the league average is 8.7—Palmer’s average pass travels 11.5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That leads the NFL, and over the course of 40 or 50 pass attempts, represents a massive chunk of additional yardage that the Cardinals are expecting Palmer to pick up with his arm versus what other teams expect receivers to generate with the ball in-hand.
The differences between these two methodologies and strategies go a long way towards explaining why Brady has prettier numbers than Palmer this season. Whether you believe putting the ball further down field is inherently harder than shorter passing, it definitively leads to less efficient numbers in several areas for quarterbacks. Completion percentage goes down, interceptions go up. There is a risk-reward nature to putting the ball in the air, and the further you air it out, the more that becomes true. Bruce Arians and the Cardinals like the high-risk, high-reward style of pla. Belichick and Tom Brady like the low-risk, high-efficiency approach. Clearly both are successful, and the point isn’t to say one system is better than the other; but it is important to understand how each affects the raw numbers of the two quarterbacks.
League-wide, the interception rate on passes thrown under 10 yards from the line of scrimmage is 1.26 percent; on passes over that mark, it is 4.32 percent. That is the risk element. The reward comes on the touchdown rate on those passes. Under 10 yards, the TD rate is 2.85 percent, but over 10 yards, it jumps to 6.95 percent. The two teams are attacking the same problem from different angles.
Given the relative hit to efficiency the further down the field you’re pushing the ball, what Palmer is doing within this offense is every bit as impressive as Brady, statistically. Palmer is completing 64 percent of his passes—a middle of the table figure, but from a guy with the league’s highest aDOT (average depth of target). That’s 7.7 percent better than Cam Newton, the only other passer to rival Palmer’s aDOT, and that figure isn’t explained by the receiving corps each is working with. Even adjusting for drops, Palmer is still well clear. The “expected” completion percentage of a player with that aDOT this season, according to the above numbers, is around 60.6 percent, so Palmer is outperforming that markedly.
Palmer is putting up good numbers in any offense, but given the system he runs, they are special. What really elevates him into the MVP conversation this season, though, are the big plays he has made, and some of the spectacular passes. Last season the highest percentage of higher-graded throws we recorded from any quarterback was 5.9%, but Palmer this season is throwing one on 9.5% of his dropbacks, an almost unbelievable rate of high-quality throws.
The second quarter of this game featured one of the throws of the season, and is one of the few passes you can look at and say is a perfect throw. Like many of Palmer’s best throws in this game (and the season), what makes it so special is the pocket presence and pressure coming at him. Palmer’s line may be objectively better than Brady’s overall, but it’s also asked to pass protect in far more difficult situations more often. Just 25.6 percent of Brady’s dropbacks feature the ball in his hands for 2.6 seconds or more—43.3 percent of Palmer’s do.
Against Seattle, Palmer was pressured on 31 of his 51 dropbacks (60.8 percent), and 11 more times than he was actually kept clean. Only Teddy Bridgewater and Russell Wilson are pressured more often this season than Palmer’s 41.9 percent, and each of those players invites more of it on themselves by moving around behind the line of scrimmage.
On this pass play, Palmer was dealing with pressure coming around the edge of the pocket to his right, and pressure in his face off the left side, preventing him from stepping into the throw and causing him to loose a 40-yard ball off his back foot against pretty tight coverage. This was a risky decision, but the location was absolute pinpoint perfection, hitting his receiver just over the coverage and creating a touchdown where most quarterbacks would have achieved little positive.
If the play in full motion didn’t convince you, here’s a still image of the ball hitting Michael Floyd’s hands. The window he was hitting was about the length of Floyd’s arms before the defensive back can make the play. That’s like hitting a trash can from 40 yards away…while under pressure, off your back foot. In prime time.
Spectacular ball placement was a theme of Palmer’s play in this game, and has been all season long. There is no quarterback more efficient at working the intermediate and deep passes this season. Take this play as another example:
Palmer is going to again evade pressure in the pocket and step up to deliver a strike to his slot receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, running an out pattern. Seattle is running a variant of their cover-3 defense, and so Palmer doesn’t just need to get the ball to the sideline, but needs to make sure it clears the underneath defender dropping to take away exactly that pattern in his curl-flat zone. This is the type of play that often results in an ugly looking interception, but Palmer manages to loft the ball over the defender at full stretch and down into Fitzgerald’s arms before he hits the sideline, allowing him to make the catch and get both feet in before falling out of bounds.
This is another extremely high-level pass made only tougher by having to negotiate pressure in the pocket before he puts the ball in the air.
Palmer had negative plays in this game as well. He fumbled the ball twice, showing poor ball security that could have hurt his team more and cost them the game, given the Seahawks recovered both fumbles. He wasn’t perfect with the ball in the air, either—no quarterback is—but there were excellent plays that got away, thanks to other players letting him down. One of his best throws of the game could have been an 80-yard touchdown pass, but Michael Floyd let it drop straight through his hands.
Take a look here:
Palmer gets no credit for this play in any stat—it simply goes down as an incomplete pass, but it was one of the best passes of the game from either quarterback.
So, what’s the bottom line here? Neither Palmer nor Tom Brady have been perfect this season. Palmer fumbled twice in this game, and has thrown seven picks on the year. He threw one against the Steelers that effectively cost the team that game, but despite that, he has been extraordinary and a massive net-win when you consider what he is asked to do within the offense.
Tom Brady has had bad plays too, though not as many. He threw a poor interception at the New York goal line, and tossed a terrible ball right to Landon Collins on the final game-winning drive that should have lost them the game, had Collins come down with the catch before that drive got anywhere. He had pressure on the play, but no more than the first play we looked at from this game where Palmer delivered a perfect pass for a touchdown.
Brady has also been a massive net-win for the Patriots, and has put up the best stats and tape of his career—a career featuring previous MVP awards.
The bottom line is that both players are playing at another level right now compared to the rest of the NFL. Both are well deserving of the MVP award through 10 weeks of the regular season (and a split award does have precedent). PFF gave the honor to Palmer over the first half of the season, and this week only entrenched that viewpoint; but whether you believe Brady should win it or not, it’s time for everybody to recognize that it should not be a foregone conclusion, and just because his numbers aren’t quite as pretty, that does not mean we can continue to ignore Carson Palmer’s MVP credentials.