How Does Carson Palmer's Career Stack Up?

Palmer is calling it quits after 15 years in the NFL. Where does he rank among the top quarterbacks in recent seasons?

“You just know.”

Sometimes the most difficult decisions in the world come down to a gut feeling. You spend so much time debating what you’ll do when you get to a situation, how you’ll know that you’re in that situation when you’re there. When the time to make a decision finally comes, there’s no logic, no drawn-out thought process, and no pros-and-cons list: you just know.

That’s exactly the rationale quarterback Carson Palmer gave this Tuesday when he announced his retirement: he just knew.

And who can blame him? After 15 years of devastating injuries, team drama, and the soaring highs and crushing lows of daily life in the NFL, Palmer has earned the right to walk away from the game on his own terms.

And we have the privilege to look over the last decade-and-a-half of NFL history through the lens of his career.

I Gotta Feeling

Palmer entered the 2003 Draft after a five-year college career at USC, and with a field of passer prospects around him like Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, and Rex Grossman, a quarterback-needy team at the top of the draft like the Cincinnati Bengals made the 2002 Heisman winner the top overall pick.

But how did Palmer do upon entering the pros? With our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can see exactly that.

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a player makes to his team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score production, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Palmer’s Bengals career in terms of Passing NEP per drop back (a measure of production) and Passing Success Rate, the latter of which is the percentage that resulted in positive NEP (a measure of consistency). We'll also list the league averages for each season in both metrics.

Year Drop Backs Pass NEP Drop Back League Average Success Rate League Average
2004 457 -0.07 0.03 44.20% 45.47%
2005 527 0.21 0.01 53.13% 45.02%
2006 556 0.12 0.01 49.46% 44.88%
2007 591 0.12 0.02 51.27% 46.89%
2008 140 -0.06 0.04 40.71% 46.50%
2009 492 0.07 0.02 48.58% 45.93%
2010 612 0.06 0.05 48.86% 45.78%

After redshirting as a rookie in 2003, Palmer’s inexperience showed in his first year under center. However, 2005 was when the young passer really hit his stride. That year, Palmer’s 0.21 Passing NEP per drop back was third-best in the league among 36 quarterbacks to drop back 200 times or more, bested by only Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

In the 2005 playoffs, he tore both his ACL and MCL, but despite what was termed a potentially career-ending injury, Palmer posted strong production in both of the next two seasons and ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, in Passing NEP per drop back in 2006 and 2007.

The injury bug bit again in 2008, however, and forced Palmer to miss 12 games as he was diagnosed with a partially torn ligament and tendon. Opting to go without surgery, Palmer returned in 2009 and 2010 with much lower (though still above-average) rates in both Passing NEP and Success Rate. Frustrated with another down season for both him and the franchise, Palmer requested a trade from the Bengals. Upon being denied, Palmer threatened retirement and refused to report to the team, thus ending the first chapter of his professional career.

From promising prospect, to top-three passer, to injury-bitten, to pariah, Palmer’s eight years with the Bengals would have been compelling enough on its own. But his story isn’t nearly over yet.

When I’m 64

Midway through the 2011 season, the Bengals received a call from the Oakland Raiders, who had just lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell to a season-ending injury. The Raiders offered first- and second-round picks to Cincinnati for the disgruntled, already-age-32 Palmer and Cincinnati agreed.

The table below shows Palmer’s production during his two years with the Raiders.

Year Drop Backs Pass NEP Per Drop Back League Average Success Rate League Average
2011 345 0.10 0.01 48.41% 45.91%
2012 591 0.05 0.06 46.19% 46.55%

Palmer’s time in the Bay Area was tumultuous off the field and not entirely noteworthy on the field; suffice to say, the Raiders did not get what they paid for. After the colossal trade to acquire him, Oakland swapped him in 2013 to the Arizona Cardinals for sixth- and seventh-round picks.

It was clear that Palmer -- old or not, injury-prone or not -- would be better than Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley, the only other quarterbacks on the Cardinals' roster. What wasn’t clear when Arizona acquired him was how much Palmer had left in the tank.

The table below shows his production over the last five years in Arizona.

Year Drop Backs Pass NEP Per Drop Back League Average Success Rate League Average
2013 613 0.04 0.07 47.80% 45.91%
2014 233 0.18 0.10 46.78% 46.91%
2015 563 0.33 0.11 52.93% 46.87%
2016 638 0.11 0.12 48.12% 47.02%
2017 289 0.01 0.06 45.33% 44.75%

What episode of the Palmer saga would be complete without a few injury-shortened seasons (2014, re-torn ACL; 2017, broken left arm)? And how could it get any better than Palmer returning from a devastating injury to post a top-two season by Passing NEP per drop back at age 36? That 2015 season was historic: his clip of 0.33 Passing NEP per drop back was the 15th-best season campaign since 2000.

Palmer’s Arizona tenure was a microcosm of his entire career: incredible talent continually derailed by outside forces, be it injury or otherwise.

He walks away from the game 12th all-time in both passing yards (46,247) and passing touchdowns (294) but having played just 182 of a possible 240 games in his career. Despite a fascinating, incredible career, we are left with questions about what might have been if Palmer had a little more luck.

Hello, Goodbye

If he had been able to pull off an ironman career like Brett Favre, Palmer would be no-doubt one of the best players ever. The table below shows his theoretical career production based on his per-game rates.

Years Games Att Pass Yards Pass TD Int
15 240 8,317 60,985 388 247

Those passing yards and touchdowns would put him sixth all-time, behind only Manning, Favre, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Dan Marino.

By Total NEP over his career, Palmer has outclassed every quarterback from his draft class except Tony Romo, and Palmer has earned the eighth-most Total NEP among passers entering the league from 2000 onward.

That said, his average Total NEP comes in just 16th among these players, and his career Approximate Value (AV; a Pro Football Reference metric) puts him around 21st all-time -- barely better than former Miami Dolphin Bob Griese and with five fewer Pro Bowl appearances and two fewer Super Bowl rings. Of the top-25 quarterbacks in career AV, only five who are eligible for the Hall of Fame don’t have gold jackets. However, without the “black ink” that fringe candidates like Griese, Sonny Jurgensen, and Terry Bradshaw have, it’s unlikely Palmer will ever find himself staring down a bust of himself in Canton.

Carson Palmer knows the story of his career has been written, but none of us yet know is what his legacy in the game will be. Still, it seems like his narrative will be one of the great “what-if” tales of the NFL, with a myriad of injuries keeping Palmer from reaching his full potential.