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Carson Palmer’s Decline Has Been Severe

In 2015, Carson Palmer finished first in ANY/A, as did his Arizona Cardinals. It was a magnificent passing season for Palmer, who was 36 years old last season. In the offseason, I noted that it was a big outlier, but there were a couple of ways you could interpret the data:

If you’re a Palmer fan, the results here can both show how much of an outlier Palmer is, but also might be considered inspiring. Peyton Manning was really good at age 36 and then historic at age 37; Gannon and Steve Young had great years at 36, and then were even better at age 37. The same goes (with a slightly lower baseline) for John Elway, Kurt Warner, and Tom Brady. Supporting cast is undoubtedly a big part of this, and Palmer seems to be playing with one of the best ones. The wildcard in the room is how much his meltdown in the NFC Championship Game impacts him mentally.

The general rule of thumb, I think, for an older quarterback is to project them to be OK until they aren’t. What does that mean? Well, I think of Adam Harstad’s mortality tables. Just because a quarterback is old doesn’t mean he’s going to have a 5 or 10% decline: guys like Manning, Gannon, Young, Elway, Warner, Brady, and Brees are examples of that. But once that decline hits, it’s often severe and permanent. For now, though, Palmer is still one of the rare quarterbacks who had his best season at age 36.

Well, we have our answer. While teams like the Texans, Panters, and Jets have suffered notable declines in the passing game, all three teams are dwarfed by the decline in pass efficiency endured by the Cardinals this season:

RkTeam2015 ANY/A2015 Rk2016 ANY/A2016 RkDiff
1Dallas Cowboys4.99327.7832.78
2Atlanta Falcons6.18178.6912.51
3Tennessee Titans5.35267.4252.06
4Indianapolis Colts5.14316.38151.24
5New England Patriots7.4848.5621.07
6Oakland Raiders6.16187.1971.03
7Denver Broncos5.14306.14201.00
8Minnesota Vikings5.62246.37160.76
9Green Bay Packers6.07206.8090.73
10Detroit Lions6.28166.8480.57
11Washington Redskins7.2267.7640.55
12Miami Dolphins5.93216.29190.36
13Baltimore Ravens5.35275.53240.18
14Kansas City Chiefs6.44136.52120.08
15New Orleans Saints7.2557.246-0.01
16Tampa Bay Buccaneers6.44126.4013-0.04
17Pittsburgh Steelers6.7196.6711-0.04
18Chicago Bears6.36156.3218-0.04
19San Diego Chargers6.51116.4014-0.12
20San Francisco 49ers5.35285.1027-0.25
21Philadelphia Eagles5.66235.1926-0.47
22St. Louis Rams5.15294.5731-0.59
23New York Giants6.8286.0921-0.73
24Cleveland Browns5.50254.7130-0.79
25Cincinnati Bengals7.7126.7310-0.98
26Jacksonville Jaguars6.08195.0628-1.02
27Buffalo Bills6.70105.6722-1.03
28Seattle Seahawks7.6836.3317-1.36
29Houston Texans5.91224.3932-1.52
30Carolina Panthers7.1975.6623-1.53
31New York Jets6.38144.8029-1.59
32Arizona Cardinals8.0315.3125-2.72

The split is particularly severe if you manipulate the end points a little bit. Take a look at his first 15 games last season, compared to his last 15 games: that’s week 17 of last year, his two playoff games, and his 12 starts (he missed one game this season due to injury) this year:

Those are brutal declines across the board: not just completion percentage, TD rate, sack rate, and INT rate, which are obvious from the chart above, but also yards per completion. He averaged 13.8 yards per completion in his first 15 games last season, but is down to 11.4 since. The only way such a decline is acceptable is if he was much more efficient and conservative, but his interception rate, sack rate, and completion percentage have gone in the tank, too.

This isn’t exactly a #breakingnews post, but the decline Palmer has suffered this year has been remarkable.

  • Have you done a table in the past on the greatest ANY/A declines, so we have something to compare this to?

  • Tom

    No real comment here, except that these numbers confirm what we’re all seeing…it is remarkable what has happened to him. I don’t know enough about scheme’s, personnel and X’s and O’s to see if there’s something else going on, but certainly on the surface it just looks like he’s, well, really bad this year. Based on last year, and excusing him for the Panthers game, I picked them to go all the way this year, along with the Steelers (yeah, I know, real “out-of-the-box” thinking there).

  • Richie

    Things looked alright for the first 2 games this year. Game-by-game ANY/A since joining the Cardinals:


    • Richie

      try again

    • Good graph. My recollection is hazy, but I seem to recall him struggling for NE. He may have either missed some open receivers, or struggled early and played well late, or got a lot of YAC, but I think the perception from that game was he was not looking the same. They did blow out TB the next week.

      • Richie

        Looks like he had a QBR of 64 and Football Outsiders gave him a DYAR of 50 (13th best in week 1). So it looks like ANY/A may have overstated how well he played in that game. Though it looks like he was far from bad. “He completed only 2-of-9 deep throws for 57 yards. One of those completions was an 18-yard gain on third-and-23.”

  • Adam

    I normally think psychological projections of players are bull***t, but in the case of Palmer, he really seems to have mentally cracked after last year’s playoffs. In the GB game, he looked very shaky and had several INT’s dropped. Against CAR, he looked downright terrified, as if the moment was too big for him. There are past examples of athletes getting the yips and never recovering. As a New Yorker, I’m sure Chase is familiar with Chuck Knoblauch; he was a Yankees infielder who suddenly lost the mental ability to make routine plays and had to retire as a result.

    • He definitely looked bad in the playoffs; however, he also had that terrible game against Seattle. I’m not sure how much of it was the finger injury.

    • This is a very minor thing, but Knoblauch didn’t retire as a result of “the yips.” He played another 2.5 years as a DH/LF. He retired because he also could no longer hit. It’s true that he never recovered the ability to throw from 2B, though.
      I also don’t think that any of the baseball examples of “the yips” is what it’s cracked up to be, but that’s a separate discussion.

      I will agree that Palmer looked in the playoffs last year, but I’m wondering how much our perception (especially in memory) is colored by the results. I also remember watching a few Cardinals games last year and thinking Palmer was strange in that he looked absolutely fantastic (I mean Hall of Fame level fantastic) 90% of the time but threw 3-4 dropped interceptions every game of the “What the hell was he even TRYING to do there?” variety. Did Carolina really just happen to do a better job of holding on to passes he’d been throwing all year and so then we interpreted him as looking terrified and put less emphasis on good things he did? (And to be completely clear, I thought the same thing about how he looked.)

      Whenever anyone (myself included) interprets someone’s expressions, I think of the Kuleshov Effect, which is well-known among film students, and wonder how much we are reading into the person’s expression.

      • Adam

        Good points. I think part of Palmer’s shoddy playoff performance was simply regression to the mean. He played over his head in the regular season, and the odds finally caught up with him at the worst possible time. We humans like to assign reasons to everything that happens, so we decide he must have been scared to explain the result.

      • Richie

        Yeah, I think the main factors at play here are that Palmer had an unusually good season in 2015, and he’s aging, which will naturally cause declines.

        Prior to his 8.41 ANY/A in 2015, his previous best was 7.26 in 2005, and 7.09 in 2014. His career average prior to 2015 was 6.03. I think that helps highlight how exceptional his 2015 was. Recently I looked at my fantasy football league draft from 2015 and saw that Carson Palmer was drafted in the 10th round that year. And this is a 12-team league that plays 2 QB’s. (In other words, QB’s are valued pretty highly). But our league didn’t have much faith in him going into 2015. (Incidentally, that team also had Tom Brady, Todd Gurley, Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall but only finished in 2nd place!)

        He was good everywhere. Best TD% of his career, 3rd-best Comp%, 2nd-best Int%, Best Y/A, 2nd-best Y/C. His sack percentage was only middle-of-the-pack for his career.

        It would be cool if “dropped passes” and “dropped interceptions” were easily found stats.

    • I think psychological explanations are bullshit predictively, but I don’t have a problem with them in theory when done descriptively. (I say in theory because we have to tread carefully, since we’re not psychologists and none of us have direct access to these players, besides.)

      For players like Matt Schaub and Jake Delhomme, I think psychological factors might just be the simplest explanation that fits all available evidence.

  • sacramento gold miners

    This topic is so relevant when looking at the number of QBs over 30 in the NFL. The teams with future HOF QBs need to be proactive about grooming a successor, and they face the problem of usually drafting later. Drew Brees has been off lately, we don’t know if this is the beginning of a decline for him. I have been surprised as well about Carson Palmer, both NFC TG teams from last season have really fallen on hard times.

    • What about Eli, too? He’s outside of the top 20 in Y/A, which is pretty rare for him. I dunno if it’s an age thing, but it’s certainly possible.

      • Deacon Drake

        Eli is almost always out of the Top 20…

        • The last time he finished outside the top 20 in Y/A was 2012, and the last time before that was 2009. For his career, he has ranked outside the top 20 in Y/A five times (2006-09, 2012) out of 11 seasons (he did not qualify his rookie season).

          He’s really only had one excellent season by Y/A (2011, when he ranked 4), but he’s rarely been as low as he is right now, especially more recently.

          • Deacon Drake

            Poor hyperbole to convey that Eli is not, was not, and never will be elite. My bad…
            The presence of ODB has kept his numbers from receding too much, but now that teams are in ODB’s head, Eli is total bang or bust.

            • I would definitely not argue with those points.

            • sacramento gold miners

              I’m comfortable with Eli Manning as an outer circle HOF QB for the following reasons. First, he has been elite as the career passing leader for a storied franchise like the NY Giants. That’s going to carry more weight than many other franchises. Second, he’s been a more successful winning QB than the likes of Phillip Rivers, and we should remember his home stats were affected by playing in the old windy Giants stadium. Third, Manning has a strong postseason resume, including two SB wins. Taking down the 2007 Patriots was more impressive than Jim Plunkett beating the 1980 Eagles or 1983 Redskins.

        • Adam

          His Y/A has traditionally not been the issue as much as his INT%. This year Eli is below average in both, and that’s with ODB bailing him out. Sure seems like the beginning of a decline to me.

          As an aside, I feel my blood pressure spike whenever I think about this mediocre QB making the HoF.

  • Deacon Drake

    It’s crazy how bad he is despite the weapons around him (Johnson, Fitz, Floyd, Brown, Brown)… The one position they seem to lack that really helps is TE… it looked like they were trying to make Momah like a hybrid weapon of sorts, but he’s hurt again.

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