Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer tried so overly hard not to do the wrong thing Saturday that it led to doing the wrong thing.
It had been six years since Palmer had been in a playoff game and he was 0-2 in the postseason. He kept taking a “Don’t mess this up” approach during the first half against the Green Bay Packers, and that didn’t go so well.
The Cardinals managed to lead at halftime 7-6 as Palmer and the passing game generated just 74 yards off eight completions. He was sacked three times and his longest completion was 19 yards.
This wasn’t Palmer, who has a big arm and a coach in Bruce Arians who encourages risk-taking. But every time Palmer made a choice in play calling he seemed to go with the most conservative option.
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“Just to get some completions,” Palmer said. “We typically have a number of shots early. They’re kind of all-or-nothing type plays. So, it was just kind of, we were thinking going in, just getting the ball out (against) a good pass rush, not putting yourself in negative situations, holding the ball in the pocket and creating second-and-20 if you get sacked.
“Really just coming out and getting some completions, and getting the ball out.”
If that explanation seems self-conscious, then you get the picture. Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Charlotte will be the first matchup of former Heisman Trophy quarterbacks. But that’s about the only way the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton and the Cardinals’ Palmer are similar.
Newton is bold and brash, the guy who said publicly upon his entry into the NFL that he aspires to be “an entertainer and an icon.”
Palmer is understated and intensely private. It was big news in Phoenix when he agreed to include his three children in a commercial for Dove Men Care.
“I’m very private, as you guys know,” Palmer said. “We’ve been so well-received in this city, this state, and the fans have been so great and gracious and welcoming, and you realize that after a while, the people want more.”
Palmer is by nature guarded, and perhaps that reflects his journey. Newton has never played for any NFL team but the Panthers and his growth has come on a relatively straight line. He’s the frontrunner to be this season’s league most valuable player.
Palmer also was a No. 1 overall pick (in the 2003 draft), but he went from Cincinnati to Oakland to Arizona and nearly dropped out of the league all together. He has overcome a torn ACL. Until Saturday’s 26-20 overtime victory (he threw for 275 yards in the second half) Palmer was described as the only quarterback in the final eight without a playoff victory.
Now that is behind him. His teammates believe a weight was lifted.
“I think he feels good. He feels confident,” wide receiver Michael Floyd said. “Obviously, when you’re out there all the time, not every single ball and not every single play is going to go the way you want it to go. But, I think for the most part, getting that win under him, the confidence is up and I think we feel good about going into this game this week.”
The term “game manager” has taken on a negative connotation regarding NFL quarterbacks. It implies a lack of the dynamic.
But in Palmer’s case, it’s accurate and complimentary. He entered the NFL with a big arm. Thirteen seasons later he has learned the craft and that keeps him in the sport.
One of the things coaches value: He doesn’t lean on any one target in a way that becomes predictable and exploitable by defenses.
“He spreads the ball as well as anybody I’ve ever been around, especially in the red zone,” said Arians, whose specialty is managing quarterbacks.
“So there’s nobody who can say, ‘OK, we’ve got to take this guy away,’ because he won’t necessarily throw it to that guy a lot. Larry (Fitzgerald’s) numbers are up, but they all have really good numbers.”
Palmer appreciates the wealth of receivers who surround him. Fitzgerald is a viable Hall of Fame candidate playing far younger than his age of 32. Floyd, at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, is the big-and-strong possession receiver. John Brown emerged last season as such a talent he pushed now-Panther Ted Ginn Jr. out of the picture.
All those options help Palmer stay unpredictable.
“I try not to look for any individual guy, because you can get yourself in tough situations like that,” Palmer said.
“You always want to get Larry going. You always want to get Mike going, you want to get Smokey (Brown) going, but you’ve got to fight that urge. That’s a dangerous recipe when you’re really trying to force a ball to a guy.
“You’ve got to let the game come to you. You’ve got to let the coverages dictate where the ball goes. The guy that’s open should get the ball, whether it’s number 11, 15, 12, whoever.”
Calm, until it’s time not to be
In personality Palmer resembles former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme – accountable, level-headed, not drawing attention to himself.
But also like Delhomme, Palmer occasionally can get riled up. That’s what happened late Saturday when the Packers tied the score at the end of regulation with a preposterous two-completion, length-of-the-field drive courtesy of Aaron Rodgers.
Just after Packers receiver Jeff Janis caught that ball in the end zone, Arians turned to see Palmer in a rare state of rage. That’s exactly the emotion Arians wanted from his quarterback.
That meant the nerves were behind him and Palmer was living in the moment. Minutes later he found Fitzgerald wide open in the flat for a completion that became a 75-yard gain. Two plays later Palmer threw a shuffle pass, left-handed no less, to Fitzgerald over the middle for the winning touchdown and his first playoff victory.
So how will Palmer handle Sunday, his first conference championship game? Just fine, Arians believes.
“That was a game where he picked a lot of shorter completions early, instead of going for them like we normally do,” Arians said. “I think that was part of, ‘I don’t want to mess this up.’ Now that we don’t have to worry about doing that anymore, we can go back to being ourselves.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell