Does Carson Palmer Need to Retire?

The Arizona Cardinals are reportedly unsure of Carson Palmer's plans for the 2017 season. After a decline in 2016, is it time for Palmer to hang it up?

Last week's hub-bub around Ben Roethlisberger's reported flirtation with retirement may have allowed people to gloss over an extra bit of news in the same vain from the weekend.

This one, though, seems a bit more believable.

Unlike Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer had some pretty serious struggles during the 2016 season. His play fell off considerably from last year, and it was a big part of the reason that the Arizona Cardinals went from Super Bowl aspirations to a 7-8-1 season and missing the playoffs.

Palmer's no young pup as 2017 would be his age-38 season. He already has 14 years in the NFL under his belt, and losing a stud receiver in Larry Fitzgerald would certainly make a comeback less enticing. Should Palmer walk away now?

We can try to answer this using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. For Palmer, we'll mostly be looking at Passing NEP, which includes all expected points added or subtracted on completions as well as the expected points the team loses on all sacks, incompletions, and interceptions throughout the season. By looking at this, we should be able to tell how much gas Palmer has left in the tank and whether it's time to move on.

A Steep Decline in 2016

Palmer was one of the best signal-callers in the game back in 2015, helping bring the Cardinals all the way to the conference championship game. This year, though, was a radically different story.

Let's check out how Palmer fared through the eyes of NEP in each of these two seasons. Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs that result in positive NEP, and the ranks are out of all passers who had at least 100 drop backs in that specific season.

Season Passing NEP per Drop Back Rank Success Rate Rank
2015 0.33 2nd 52.93% 3rd
2016 0.11 21st 48.12% 16th

Palmer went from being in the top rung of passers to jockeying for position with guys like Alex Smith, Cody Kessler, and Sam Bradford, all of whom had a better Passing NEP per drop back than him. Sub-Gucci.

This was a pretty clear deviation for Palmer, who didn't just luck into one good season in 2015. Two years ago, he ranked seventh in Passing NEP per drop back among those with 100 drop backs before a torn ACL ended his season just six games in. He went from a two-year stretch of dominance to mediocrity without any warning.

Part of this could easily be age, in which case Palmer may want to give additional thought to calling it quits. But that doesn't tell the whole story for 2016 because some issues up front may have tainted his numbers.

Back in Week 8, left tackle Jared Veldheer suffered a partially torn triceps, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season. The team used John Wetzel at left tackle before replacing him with D.J. Humphries due to ineffectiveness. Then, Humphries sustained a concussion that held him out the final three games. This was all in addition to an injury-shortened season for guard Evan Mathis.

Basically, the brown stuff done hit the fan in a hurry, and it contributed to Palmer's metric decline.

Overall, Palmer lost 73.02 Passing NEP for the season due to sacks, the third-highest total in the entire league. When we included those sacks above, he ranked 21st in Passing NEP per drop back. However, if we look just at his Passing NEP on throws (and do the same for every other qualified passer), he does slide up to 17th. That's still not what he was last year, but it's the mark of a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL.

With a functioning offensive line, it appears that Palmer could have been a much better passer this year than the numbers say he was. Both Veldheer and Humphries are under contract for next year, so we should expect some positive regression in that department. Even baking in the potential for more decline out of Palmer, he doesn't seem to be a person in need of a new calling.

Perhaps the biggest concern going forward is his ability to connect on deep passes. As a player ages, you'd expect their arm strength to tail off, hurting them in this area. That's exactly how things played out for Palmer. Here's a look at how he fared on passes at least 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage over the past two seasons. It ain't pretty.

On Deep Passes Attempts Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Success Rate
2015 126 86.76 0.69 46.83%
2016 98 31.54 0.26 37.50%

Because this includes only passes that leave his hand, offensive line didn't play as big of a role here. Palmer was solid on deep passes last year, but he ranked just 30th in Passing NEP per drop back this year, trailing Blaine Gabbert and Carson Wentz, while being just one spot ahead of Josh McCown.

While the offensive line may get better, you wouldn't expect this trend to completely reverse course. It's worth noting that deep-ball threat John Brown was dinged up the entire year with various ailments, and his health would provide some room for hope. But overall, Palmer in his current state does have his limitations.

Not an Easy Decision

When we factor all of this together, we can see that Palmer is still a quarterback who can help a team do some damage in the right conditions. The concerns around his game, though, are legitimate.

The question for Palmer spins around what he truly wants. If he wants to keep playing, he showed last year that he can still do that, putting up at least acceptable marks when you account for his offensive line. However, if he wants to go out before his faults shine through too brightly, now might be the right time.

Palmer is not fully done. He's also not what he used to be. As long as he's willing to accept that and account for his decreased abilities down the field, then this is still a guy who can find success on a team with the offensive weapons the Cardinals possess. Palmer certainly does not need to retire, but it is at least a thought worth pondering based on what happened in 2016.