Can the Arizona Cardinals Survive Without Carson Palmer?

Losing Carson Palmer to a torn ACL will put Drew Stanton back in charge and the Arizona Cardinals to the test.

Carson Palmer might end up being one of the saddest what-if stories in NFL history.

He isn't too far removed from the conversation of being one of the league's best quarterbacks, and he was currently on pace for one of the best seasons of his career while at the helm of the now 8-1 Arizona Cardinals.

He, even at 34, just inked a three-year extension two days before the team's Week 10 game against the St. Louis Rams.

Palmer, though, suffered what is likely a torn ACL in that game, an injury that will probably end his season. As sad as it may be, the show continues, and the Cardinals will now turn to Drew Stanton once again.

Will the Cards be able to continue racking up the wins, or will the drop off from Palmer to Stanton finally prove to be too much for this Arizona team?

Or - an even more pressing question - were the Cardinals a bit overrated all along?

Palmer Versus Stanton

A unique aspect of this is that Palmer had already missed three games this year with a shoulder injury and Stanton has seen some moderate time running the offense.

Unfortunately, Palmer was playing fantastic football, and Stanton was no better than average. That's not really subjective, either. It's entirely centered on Net Expected Points (NEP), which is how numberFire quantifies a player's production compared to the production of a replacement-level player - or expectation.

Here are their relevant NEP metrics prior to the Week 10 game against the Rams.

PlayerDrop BacksPassing NEPPassing NEP/Drop BackSuccess Rate
Carson Palmer19442.650.2246.39%
Drew Stanton930.200.0035.48%

The key takeaway from this chart is the Passing NEP per drop back column. Essentially, on any given Stanton drop back, the Cardinals could have expected no points. More accurately, the typical Stanton drop back didn't move the ball in a positive way for the Cardinals, and he was playing at the same level that any average or replacement-level quarterback would have during those three games.

Palmer, on the other hand, added 0.22 points per drop back. In his five full starts through Week 9, Palmer averaged 38.8 drop backs per game, which then netted the Cardinals 8.5 expected points per contest. That means, on average, the Cardinals were losing 8.5 points per contest with Stanton running the offense compared to what they had with a healthy Palmer.

In context with the rest of the league though, Stanton's baseline metrics aren't quite what they appear because passing above expectation has become the norm in this new-age NFL as passing efficiency continues to climb.

Of the 42 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 50 drop backs, Stanton's Passing NEP ranked 32nd entering Week 10. Palmer's was 12th. On a per-drop back basis, Stanton was also 32nd, but Palmer jumped up to 10th in the subset. What about Success Rate, measuring the percentage of drop backs that lead to positive expected-point outputs? Palmer plummeted to 22nd out of the 42, but Stanton nearly hit rock bottom. His 35.48% Success Rate was 41st out of the group, ranking ahead of only the indomitable exploits of Chad Henne (30.85%).

So can this Arizona team really continue to succeed despite the switch to Stanton?

A Peck Overrated?

Well, as easy as it is to point to its near-flawless 8-1 record and being the only one-loss team in the NFL, Arizona wasn't exactly atop our power rankings entering Week 10. They had the highest chance to make the playoffs of any team (97.2%), the second-highest Division Championship odds (84.3%), and the second-highest Super Bowl chances (13.3%). In spite of that, they were just seventh overall in terms of nERD, which indicates by how many points our algorithms think they would defeat an average opponent. Of the six teams ahead of them in our nERD rankings, four of them were three-loss teams.

Record isn't everything.

They did have the fifth-ranked defense overall entering the week, but their offense, including being weighed down by three games of Stanton, didn't quite stack up. They were the 15th-best offense in the NFL and now must revert back to the inefficient Stanton.

Since their bye in Week 4 through Week 9, the Cardinals have been the 13th-best offense in terms of NEP when adjusted for schedule strength, which isn't bad considering one of those weeks, Week 5, came with Stanton still in control. As a team, they have posted an Adjusted Passing NEP of 24.08, which ranked 11th in that span but 13th on a per-game basis.

So how far behind was the running game to drag down their overall offense to 13th? Way far behind. Their Adjusted Rushing NEP was -12.55 since their bye week, ranking 28th in the league. Their ground game lost them 2.51 points per contest, adjusted for schedule, since the bye, ranking 26th in the league.

Arizona now turns to an ineffective quarterback to lead an offense with one of the least efficient run games in the league of late.

Will They Hang On?

At 8-1 and with one of the best defensive units in the league, it's near impossible to think they miss the playoffs.

But things are looking grim enough on the offensive side of the ball to think that this season may wind up well short of the Super Bowl. And, really, things may have been fool's gold all along.

The Cards entered Week 10 with just one receiver inside the top 48 in Reception NEP (Larry Fitzgerald), and Andre Ellington had the worst Rushing NEP of the 35 running backs with at least 75 carries. Despite the promise of offensive talent, the Cardinals haven't shown it as a unit overall, and now they must rely on the unreliable Stanton to lead them into the playoffs.