Can Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald Form an Elite Passing Combo?

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterJuly 1, 2013

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals scores a 64-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Even though it has been a long time coming, it appears as if the Arizona Cardinals have finally found their first franchise quarterback since Kurt Warner. When Warner hung up his spikes at the end of the 2009 season, the team had done little to prepare for his abrupt departure.

Arizona’s lack of planning forced four different quarterbacks into action in 2010. Derek Anderson started nine games, John Skelton started four, Max Hall started three and Richard Bartel appeared in one game toward the end of the season (Week 16). 

The following year proved to be a tad bit better recordwise, but instability still reared its ugly head at the quarterback position. Kevin Kolb started nine games, Skelton started eight and Bartel came in off the bench two different times.

After an 8-8 finish in 2011, the Cardinals were primed for a breakout season in 2012. Unfortunately, injuries and erratic play under center sent Ken Whisenhunt’s ballclub into a tailspin following the team’s Week 6 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

The downhill slope, from that point on, thrust three different quarterbacks into action. Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer combined for one win from Week 7 on. The lack of competent quarterback play in 2012 forced new head coach Bruce Arians to overhaul the position during the 2013 offseason. 

Arians and general manager Steve Keim signed Drew Stanton in free agency and traded two draft picks for Carson Palmer. The Oakland Raiders received a sixth-round pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in 2014.

At first glance, Palmer is the perfect fit for Arians’ vertical passing attack. Moreover, the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback will help revive wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s career. In 2012, Fitzgerald posted career lows in touchdown receptions and yards per reception. 

By turning on the tape, we can analyze how Palmer’s strengths go hand in hand with Fitzgerald’s. Not to mention, we can also examine how Palmer and Fitzgerald can form an elite passing combination. 

The first play (seen below) focuses on the accuracy of No. 3’s deep ball. Palmer’s deep-ball accuracy was arguably his most attractive attribute in 2012. Five of his 22 touchdown passes last season were on passes of 20-plus yards downfield.

Palmer’s target on this play was right wide receiver Rod Streater. Oakland was in “11” personnel, and Streater’s responsibility was to run a fade route down the right sideline. If the ball is thrown his way, the Raiders should have a good chance at six points. 

Tampa Bay safety Ahmad Black had two choices on the play. He could either play center field and direct traffic in the middle of the field, or he could provide over-the-top help on Streater. Coincidentally enough, he choose to direct traffic in the middle of the field. This, in turn, made Palmer’s decision to throw the fade route easy. 

Streater did his part by beating cornerback E.J. Biggers down the sideline, and Palmer laid the ball right out in front of him for an easy score. Cardinals fans should be envisioning Fitzgerald and Palmer executing this same play to perfection in 2013.

This breakdown hones in on Fitzgerald’s ability to go up and get the ball at its highest point. Aside from Calvin Johnson, no receiver does a better job of going up and getting the ball than No. 11. Fitz makes some of the toughest catches look easy, thanks in large part to incredible body contortion and timing.

During Arizona’s Week 3 contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cardinals were looking to extend their lead with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Fitzgerald. Whisenhunt’s offense deployed a “21” personnel look with one wide receiver split out to the left and one split out to the right.

Fitzgerald’s route on this play called for a skinny route that would split the corner and the safety right down the middle of the field.

As soon as Fitzgerald realized safety Kurt Coleman took the underneath route, he cut off his route and changed direction. With cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in the trail position, he sprinted toward the middle of the field in anticipation of the ball being thrown his way. 

Kolb waited for the play to develop and hit Fitzgerald in stride. It wasn’t a perfect throw by any means, but the All-Pro wideout went up and caught the ball at its highest point. Against all odds, he made the circus catch and showed off his dynamic playmaking ability.

As long as Palmer delivers the ball on time this season, Fitzgerald will do everything in his power to ensure a completed pass.

For the third and final play, let’s evaluate Palmer’s ball placement in the red zone. Ball placement will be crucial for the Cardinals because they touted the second-worst red-zone offense in the NFL last year, according to Team Rankings. In the red zone, Arizona scored touchdowns on only 40 percent of its offensive drives. 

Prior to the snap, Oakland’s offense planned on deploying three wide receivers, a running back and a tight end. The wideouts were bunched to the right, the running back was split out wide to the right and the tight end was on the left side of the line of scrimmage.

Wide receiver Denarius Moore (circled) lined up in the slot, and he was the primary pass-catcher on the play. His objective was to fake to the inside and split the defense en route to the end zone. 

Palmer did a great job of reading the defense. He saw safety Kendrick Lewis peak at Streater underneath, which meant Moore would have single coverage against cornerback Stanford Routt. A well-placed ball toward the back of the end zone would result in a touchdown. 

Palmer delivered a strike, and Moore snagged the ball out of the air. Furthermore, the play resulted in perfect execution because of precise ball location and timing. If Palmer hadn’t unloaded the ball when he did, Routt would have been able to play catch up and break up the pass. 

This type of pinpoint accuracy will be received with open arms in Arizona. Palmer and Fitzgerald’s possibilities are seemingly endless right now. Fitz has been yearning for a quarterback like Palmer. And Palmer has been yearning for a wide receiver like Fitz.

On paper, it’s a match made in heaven. If the Cardinals' passing game doesn’t finish as one the NFL’s best, all hope is lost. With a rehabilitated passing attack and a top-15 defense, Arizona has enough talent to contend in a jam-packed NFC West.