ALAMEDA, Calif. – Carson Palmer gave himself a refresher course this offseason in what watching football without the modern convenience of high definition is like.
It brought him back to the late 1980s, when he watched football just because he liked what he saw without knowing the complications of the game.
This time around, it was for the benefit of his NFL career.
As part of his indoctrination into the West Coast offense, Palmer, 32, watched as much of the scheme as he could. He went all the way back to the Bill Walsh-coached San Francisco 49ers.
“It was pretty cool going back to those days,” said Palmer this week during a break in the Raiders’ organized team activities. “There were no HD films back then, so it was kind of gritty. It brought me back to when I was 8 years old and I just wanted to see (49ers running back) Roger Craig score a touchdown. You look at the game so differently now, but it was a good learning experience.”
Palmer’s West Coast cram sessions included several incarnations of the scheme. However, a primary focus was the 2010 and 2011 Houston Texans. Palmer watched every game the team played the past two seasons.
New Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp was Houston’s quarterbacks coach in those seasons, and Knapp is bringing a version of the West Coast offense to Oakland. He is a disciple of the 49ers’ West Coast offense and has used versions of it as a coordinator in San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland (in 2007-08) and Seattle.
Palmer was in a West Coast offense in his first year at USC, at age 18. In a season during which he will turn 33, Palmer must adjust to the offense in what will be a crucial year for him personally. The previous Oakland regime traded two premium draft picks for Palmer last season in a desperate attempt to stay in the playoff hunt when starter Jason Campbell went down for the season with a broken collarbone.
Oakland was 4-2 when Campbell went down. It was 4-6 after acquiring Palmer from the Bengals. Thrown into the Oakland system after holding out in Cincinnati, Palmer’s rust showed as he threw 16 interceptions and 13 touchdown passes for the Raiders.
Palmer is now comfortable in Oakland, and though he is still adjusting to Knapp’s system, he says he is thrilled with the playbook because Knapp’s offense has so many variations. There are some classic West Coast schemes, but there is also zone-blocking running and other modifications. Palmer said he believes it is the most varied offense he has been in.
He thinks it will blend nicely with Oakland’s speed at receiver. Mostly, Palmer is confident his transition to the offense will be easy because of Knapp himself.
“He’s been fantastic with me,” Palmer said. “He’s amazing. He is a teacher in addition to a coach. It will really help me get this offense down.”
New Oakland coach Dennis Allen said Palmer was a major reason why he chose to hire Knapp as his offensive coordinator. He said Palmer’s ability to adjust to Knapp’s offense made the Palmer-Knapp pairing a “great fit” in Allen’s mind.
Allen scoffs at concern that Palmer might not be athletic enough to run Knapp’s offense. He has repeatedly said he thinks that Palmer is athletic as Matt Schaub, who flourished under Knapp in Houston. Palmer often ran around the field freely on Tuesday in addition to participating in a multitude of plays, including several deep passes, which mesh with his big arm.
“He moved around today,” Allen said Tuesday. “He’s plenty athletic.”
Allen also said the key is to be flexible -- not only on offense, but on defense, where the 4-3-based Raiders will use multiple front-seven sets. Allen -- who was Denver’s defensive coordinator last season -- saw the benefit of in-season coaching when the Broncos went to an option offense for Tim Tebow midway through the season. He said Tuesday he learned from that experience.
“We are running the West Coast offense, but we’re going to do a lot of things,” Allen said. “We are going to take advantage of what Carson does best.”
While hopes are high in Oakland that Palmer will show he was worth the high price, some worry about the fit. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is in that camp.
“I have a lot of concerns with Palmer adjusting to the Raiders’ new offense,” Williamson said. “First off, it was the former staff/philosophy that wanted Palmer. He doesn’t anticipate routes well. When the receiver becomes open, Palmer throws it. Therefore, defensive backs get a better break on the ball and run-after-the-catch potential is more limited. Also, he has heavy feet and not a movement-based quarterback, which is ideally what they now want in Oakland. I do think Knapp will adapt his system to fit Palmer -- he will have to.”
To help Palmer adjust to playing for Knapp, Oakland signed Matt Leinart to be his backup. Leinart backed up Palmer at USC and the two Heisman Trophy winners have a close bond. Leinart was in Houston the past two seasons.
Leinart said this week he is happy to help Palmer with any nuances of Knapp’s offense. He said keys for Palmer will be to use bootlegs and rely on what should be a strong running game.
"I'm here for Carson, to help him with reads, to let him know that certain things are very good, just to stay on it," Leinart said. "Because when you're taught a new offense, there's things that you're not used to; you're used to doing it a certain way. Sometimes the reads are a little different. I told him today, 'Just stick with this route because it's a great route for us. It's going to be a great route for us.'"
And if he needs any reassurance, all Palmer has to do is flip on that gritty, grainy game film from yesteryear.