Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians knows what the stats say. When he was offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts last season, Arians knows that his quarterback, Andrew Luck, took more hits while throwing than any QB in the NFL. Before that, when Arians was offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he knows his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, wasn't one to shy away from contact, either.
One line of thinking suggests that Arians' preference for deeper passes invites punishment upon quarterbacks by requiring them to hold the ball longer. The Cardinals, with an immobile quarterback in Carson Palmer and no established speed receiver, plan to run a similar attack, but without the QB carnage.
The key to pulling it off lies in something the 60-year-old Arians has almost never had during his NFL coaching career: a wise, old quarterback. Palmer is 33 years old and has dropped back to pass 4,337 times in 10 NFL seasons.
"With Ben and Andrew, it was like they have a Superman cape on," Arians said during an interview Monday. "They think they can get out of everything. Carson is smart enough to know he ain't getting out of there."
Palmer, despite frequently playing from behind with the Oakland Raiders in 2012, ranked eighth in fewest sacks per drop-back (4.4 percent). However, only Luck (46) and Tom Brady (30) took more hits while throwing than Palmer, who had 28 last season, according to game charting by ESPN Stats & Information.
Arians and Palmer have another month or so to find the right balance through a level of collaboration that wouldn't be feasible with an inexperienced quarterback.
2010-12 QB Comparison
Peyton Manning was just starting out when Arians was coaching the Colts' quarterbacks from 1998 to 2000. Tim Couch was 24 years old when Arians became Couch's coordinator in 2001, the start of a two-year run when Couch went 15-15 as the Cleveland Browns' starter. Arians coached the Pittsburgh Steelers' receivers during Roethlisberger's first three seasons before a five-year run as coordinator. Luck was a rookie during Arians' lone season as the Colts' offensive coordinator and interim head coach.
Building around a young franchise quarterback is the way to go, of course. The Cardinals would be better off with a young Manning, Roethlisberger or Luck than with the more seasoned Palmer, who since 2008 ranks 20th out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR, sandwiched between Josh Freeman and Kyle Orton.
But for a Cardinals franchise that has endured the NFL's worst quarterbacking by far over the past three seasons, Palmer stands as a clear upgrade. Arizona has 42 touchdown passes over its last 48 games, one fewer than New Orleans had last season alone. While the metrics say Palmer was below average by NFL standards last season, he was still better than Arizona's quarterbacks by a margin wide enough to represent about three victories over the course of a season.
"The first day, being a legitimate NFL Pro Bowler a couple times, these guys have competed against him, they knew -- but when he made the first couple throws, it was like, 'Wow, we're legit,'" Arians said.
The initial meetings between Arians and Palmer were one-sided by design. Arians wanted Palmer to learn the full playbook before tweaking things to the quarterback's liking. The coach saw that shared understanding as the foundation for trust. In the end, the Cardinals won't necessarily mirror the approach of the 2012 Colts, who tied with the Chicago Bears for the NFL lead in average pass length at 10 yards, well above the 8.4-yard league average.
"We do like a ball-control passing game to go with the shot plays down the field," Arians said. "Sometimes, situations in games dictate. We were playing from behind so much in Indy last year and needing 16- to 18-yard balls that Andrew would wait on. And quite honestly, Andrew was just throwing that thing to Reggie [Wayne] for the first six games. He wasn't looking at anybody else.
"I think Carson has got a wealth of knowledge in this business of how to play what we're trying to get done offensively and not take hits."