TEMPE, Ariz. – Offensive lines and quarterbacks are, in theory, attached at the hip – or backside.
They've been linked together throughout football history. One can’t operate without the other. A line would have no one to block for, and a quarterback would have no one to protect him. And when paired together, how the line goes, so usually goes the quarterback.
It’s true for every team in the NFL, but none more so than the Arizona Cardinals. Through the first seven games, Arizona gave up 20 sacks of quarterback Carson Palmer. In the last six the Cards’ offensive line has surrendered 16, but five of those came in their only loss during that stretch. Overall, something has changed. The Cardinals’ line has been blocking better and has been giving Palmer more time.
The difference isn't just in protection. It can be seen throughout the offense. In the last six games, Palmer has averaged 286 yards passing, compared with 248 in the first seven. Arizona averaged 77 yards per game on the ground in the first seven and 104 per game since.
“You all need to play well for it to work,” Palmer said. “If a group doesn’t play well, then you won’t play well, or if a position doesn’t play well, you don’t play well.”
Once the line started giving Palmer more time, the entire team’s production went up. Palmer’s thrown 12 touchdown passes in the past six games compared with eight in the first seven.
As one of right tackle Eric Winston’s college coaches said: Protection equals completions. They also mean scores. Winston has seen Palmer’s decisions improve once he’s given more time to go through his reads. Palmer isn’t the type of quarterback to look at one option and take off, Winston said, so the more time he gets, the better passes he’ll throw.
If doubters need more proof, Palmer’s 69.3 completion percentage since Week 8 is second-best in the NFL.
“The times we’ve protected him well, he’s performed really well,” Winston said. “The times we haven’t we’ve made life hard on him.”
To the outsider, it looked as if a light switch had been flipped with the offensive line. To them, their performance since Week 8 has been the result of gradual and steady progress. Right guard Paul Fanaika said the line wasn’t surprised it finally happened. It takes time, he said, for a group that was put together at the start of training camp to finally mesh.
And when it did, a 5-1 record in the past six games has been the result.
“Once you start that momentum going, it’s like, ‘All right, I think this is going in the right direction,’” Winston said. “And it seemed like there was so much more consistency. Instead of having those flashes, you got it for longer and longer spurts of time. Now, I think we’re at a good point where we’re expecting to make these drives and open up games with scores and do those things and convert third downs.
“Now it’s not, ‘Oh, yes, we did it. Let’s not try to mess it up again.’ It’s something where I think a lot of people have a lot of confidence around here.”
But the offensive line shouldn't be the goat or the hero all the time, said Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, who was a Hall of Fame guard. The key, Munchak said, is to avoid "stressful situations" during a game and so that the confidence Winston mentioned can grow.
On film, he's seen the confidence improve in every game, which has led to Arizona's line getting better throughout the season.
"The offensive line gets too much credit and gets too much blame," Munchak said. "There are more pieces -- it's the line, it's the tight ends, the running back -- there are a lot more pieces to the puzzle.
"Ultimately, you have to keep the guy upright. The offensive line has to give the quarterback a chance to be successful and not to fumble the ball in the pocket and things like that, and they've done a good job with that."