Commentary

Palmer ready to improve Raiders

With time to master the playbook, he'll show why Oakland was so eager to get him

Originally Published: November 4, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

This is not meant to slight Jason Campbell. He had Oakland well on its way to a 4-2 record when two Cleveland Browns converged on him and his collarbone snapped. Were it not for Campbell's solid play and leadership through the first six weeks of the season, the Raiders would not be sitting at 4-3 and heading into Week 9 tied with San Diego and Kansas City atop the AFC West standings.

But Carson Palmer makes the Raiders better.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireCarson Palmer said this week that, thanks to the bye, he's had time to learn the entire Oakland playbook.
That is why coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Al Saunders were so giddy after the Raiders pulled off the improbable trade with Cincinnati that brought Palmer to the Bay Area. Talk about slights. Jackson called it the greatest trade in football. Saunders said that at Palmer's first practice, everyone said, "You know what, this is a real quarterback."

It was insensitive hyperbole coming from two men who had relied on Campbell for so much, but it was understandable. Palmer was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL just a few years ago. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were untouchable at the top of the list, and then there was Palmer at the head of the next tier.

If he can play anywhere close to where he was from 2005 to 2007, the Raiders are going to be looking at their first playoff appearance since 2002.

It is going to take time. Palmer isn't going to be the Palmer of old on Sunday against Denver. He is a repetition guy. He needs practice, to get the timing down with his new receivers, to master the plays.

But even when Palmer knew only 15 plays and unexpectedly played against Kansas City two weeks ago, he showed glimpses of the past.

Greg Cosell saw it while watching the coaches' tape in his office at NFL Films.

"Looking at all of his throws in the last game, I thought he looked pretty good," said Cosell, the longtime executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "Disregard the numbers. Looking at the individual throws, I saw some positive things. He threw big routes in the middle of the field between people. The tough NFL throws, he made those. I thought the timing was off, but I expected that. For the most part, the ball came out pretty well."

When Palmer was in his prime, Cosell used to marvel at Palmer's ability to lead his receivers, to throw to where they were ultimately supposed to be before they even came out of their breaks. He loved how Palmer would drop back, hit his back foot, throw with pass-rushers in his face, and, as Cosell said, "make stick throws into tight windows with phenomenal anticipation."

Indeed, Palmer's numbers were right there with Brady and Manning. From 2005 to 2007, Palmer completed 65.0 percent of his passes for 12,002 yards, with 86 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. Manning completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 12,184 yards, with 90 touchdowns and 33 interceptions, and Brady completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 12,445 yards, with 100 touchdowns and 34 interceptions.

In 2005, Palmer had the highest completion percentage (67.8) in football, better than Manning (67.3), better than Brady (63.0).

"I don't know if we'll see that Carson Palmer ever again," Cosell said. "I would be surprised if we do."

Palmer never reached Manning/Brady stature because, ultimately, quarterbacks are judged on wins. Manning and Brady played on talented teams that were built for the playoffs. Palmer didn't. During that three-year stretch, Palmer had one memorable playoff game in 2005 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he tore his right knee on the first pass play of the game. That season the Bengals went 11-5. The next year they went 8-8, then 7-9.

By comparison, Brady's Patriots, which had already won three Super Bowls earlier in the decade, went 38-10 in the regular season, 5-3 in the playoffs, made two AFC Championship Game appearances and one more Super Bowl appearance. Manning's Colts went 39-9 in the regular season, 4-2 in the playoffs and won a Super Bowl.

Palmer guided the Bengals back to the playoffs only once, in 2009. His postseason record is 0-2.

Can this be the year he gets a postseason win? Palmer spent two days last week, during the Raiders' bye, working with Oakland's receivers. The Raiders have a good young group: Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore, Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens. This week, Jackson added an old Palmer favorite, 34-year-old T.J. Houshmandzadeh, to work the slot.

On Wednesday, Palmer said that he had had time during the bye week to digest the Oakland playbook.

"I'm comfortable with the entire playbook," Palmer told Bay Area reporters. "I'm comfortable with the guys. I'm comfortable with the snap count, where to stand in the huddle. Every little bit that I've been around here, every second that I've had, I've just learned more and more."

It won't happen immediately, but over the course of the next month, Jackson and Saunders should be able to open up their offense a little more.

"There's a lot of volume in their playbook," Cosell said. "With Carson, you'll get to more of it. That's what coaches want. They want volume, to be able to run all of their plays. They'll do more of that."

More than they could with Campbell. He was good. Palmer should be better.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.