I’m not a big time football fan. In fact, most seasons I never watch a game. I have always liked the insider stuff that makes the game work. I used to watch the old NFL films back in the day on Sunday mornings when they would break down the games and how things went, good or bad. And how the whole operation worked. Last year Sports Illustrated ran a two part series on just what goes on before and during the game. I didn’t get the post out before football season was over, so I’m doing it now.
An NFL team is like running a military operation. You plan in detail for every contingency you can think of. Detail every play. Practice every play that you can. You scout the opposing side. You hide your plays from the other side’s scouts. You use every technology you get your hands on.
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — There’s something placid about Carson Palmer. He’s unfazed by most distractions. It’s a trait that has served him well in 13 years as an NFL quarterback. So he is not particularly worried when the game plan for the following Sunday—which usually pops up on the screen of his tablet between 5 and 7 p.m. on Tuesdays—isn’t there by 7. There’s an easy explanation: The Cardinals played the previous night against Baltimore on Monday Night Football, and Arizona’s offensive staff, which worked some over the weekend to start game-planning for Cleveland, compressed two days into one so worker-bee offensive assistant Kevin Garver could cram through the details and get the document to Palmer, and he could start his nightly studying process.
Now at his house in the shadow of rugged Camelback Mountain, Palmer still has time to read a bedtime story to his 6-year-old twins, Fletch and Elle, and to 4-year-old daughter Bries. They pick out “Tickle Monster,” by Josie Bissett, perhaps because it calls for several tickling sessions by their dad. There’s a strong family feel to the Mission style home. On one wall is an artsy collection of 60 six-inch-square framed photos of family events, mostly documenting the three kids’ lives. “That’s Shaelyn,” Palmer says, nodding at his wife’s handiwork. “She is so creative.” Shaelyn finishes putting the kids to bed, and Palmer sits down at the desk in his home office, just off the kitchen. The game plan for Cleveland pops into his email at about 7:25 p.m. Good timing. Palmer needed to get going.
For the next 90 minutes, the 35-year-old quarterback with a better reputation than career record—150 starts: 75 wins, 75 losses—is mostly silent. This is not a group project, studying what Bruce Arians and the offensive staff have designed for the game five days away at Cleveland. “I know quarterbacks who can look at a formation once, a play once, the concept once, and they’ve got it,” Palmer says as he hand-writes a formation into a notepad. “Not me. I’ve got to study it over and over until I get it. It’s hard work, play after play.”
Multiply that times 171. That’s how many plays Arians will have in the offensive game plan for Cleveland. For each, there is a formation to learn, a personnel combination to learn, defensive tendencies to study—this with a virtual-reality headset that Palmer dons, making him look like a spaceman—plus details about what would cause Palmer to change the play at the line, and what to change into. And if the call is a pass play, Palmer must know his progression. Which receiver is his first option? Second? Third? Fourth?
Consider the difficulty of this week. The Cardinals are coming off a Monday night game against a team, Baltimore, that they hadn’t faced since before Arians and Palmer were united in Arizona in 2013. This week they will play a team neither man has faced since 2012, when the Browns had a different coach, two different coordinators and a mostly different roster. Because the road trip is a long one, the team will travel on Friday afternoon, compressing practice and prep time even more. Also troubling: Karlos Dansby, one of the smartest defensive players in recent Cardinals history, is now the defensive leader of the Browns; he knows a lot about Arizona’s play-calling tendencies.
Then you hit the real world and you have to adapt. That’s when the quarterback earns his money.
Sometimes the plans work when you change them like this. Something happens, an opportunity presents itself and you go for it. The decision has to be made in seconds and you have to be able to correctly judge the odds. Get it right and you win. Get it wrong and things won’t end well this week.
Palmer looked on his wristband, which listed all 171 plays in that day’s game plan, coded 1 through 171 in 10-point-type, and found the one Arians wanted. (The number coding minimizes miscommunication between the sideline and the quarterback in loud stadiums.) Play number 17 read: Pstl Str Rt Stk Act 6 Y Crs Dvd.
Palmer leaned into the Arizona huddle and called, “Pistol, Strong left … Stack Act 6, Y Cross Divide.”
About Arians’ “flip” call: During the week this play was designed as “Strong Right,” to be run with the ball on the right hash mark. But now, from the Arizona 36-yard line, the ball was spotted on the left hash. Arians reminded Palmer to flip the play, putting the tight end to the left of the formation (strong) and the two wideouts opposite the tight end, to the right. Arians trusted his 35-year-old quarterback to get it right, and Palmer did.
Bruce Arians loved this play. Carson Palmer was positive it would get one of his two receivers, Larry Fitzgerald or rookie J.J. Nelson, in single-coverage downfield in a matchup they could win. This, coach and quarterback believed, was the home run—six such downfield bombs were in the game plan, under HOME RUN, Arians’ favorite play category—that could turn the game around.
Football games are very much like what happened next. Imperfect. Unexpected things happen on almost every play. Players miss assignments. Coaches put players in bad spots. Players trip. Balls bounce funny. The Cardinals spend millions on scouting and coaching and technology and, this year for the first time, virtual reality, to learn, to practice and predict what foes will do in this spy-versus-spy grid game. Sometimes in that game, you see an opportunity. That’s what the Cardinals saw here, and on a glorious fall day in northeast Ohio, Palmer was determined to take advantage of it…
Been to Cleveland? Been to a football game on the lake? Wind matters. Soon after the Cardinals’ flight landed on Friday night, Palmer and a small party had a late dinner downtown with Dave Zastudil, former punter for Cleveland and Arizona. “Punters are my best friends,” Palmer said. “They know the wind in every stadium. And Dave played in Cleveland. I grilled him.” Though Palmer used to play in the same division as the Browns—he threw six touchdown passes for the Bengals in this stadium in 2007—it had been five years since he set foot in the place, and he wanted a refresher course….
“Coach,” wide receiver Michael Floyd said to Arians on the sideline, “Haden’s hurt. I think it’s a hamstring. I know I can run by him.”
Floyd had first noticed it in midway through the first quarter and told Arians and Palmer. Now he was saying it again. That didn’t surprise Arians; Floyd was always saying he could get open. Don’t all receivers? But Arians had Trips Right 70 Go, an absolute basic staple of the offense, in the game plan: three receivers on one side, one on the other, with the lone receiver the number one option because he’ll usually be single-covered. Arians knew if he flipped the call—three receivers left, Floyd alone on the right—Haden, most often the defensive left corner, would be lined up alone on Floyd. And then they’d see if Haden really was gimpy…
Fourth play of Arizona’s first series of the second half. Palmer in the huddle: “Trips LEFT, 70 Go,” Palmer said. As he got to position, Floyd nodded, sure of what was about to happen. Palmer is usually one to make sure he doesn’t dictate where he’s going with his eyes, but it wasn’t necessary here, because there was no safety help for Cleveland on Floyd’s side. It was Haden Island. At the snap Haden and Floyd jousted. Floyd took the outside route and got away with a tolerable pushoff 15 yards into the route. That’s when Palmer let it fly—only this time it wasn’t a rainbow, the kind of ball he’d thrown to Fitzgerald in the first half. It was more of a humpback liner, perfectly spiraled on a low trajectory, and it traveled 38 yards into Floyd’s waiting hands. Couldn’t have been a prettier throw. Haden, trailing by a step, dove to attempt the shoestring tackle but failed. Palmer to Floyd, 60-yard touchdown…
• If Palmer has a tiny lane, he’ll run it in. If not he’ll try to flip it to blocking tight end Troy Niklas. The key: forcing one of two linebackers who’s not in the nine-man Cleveland front, Craig Robertson, to honor the threat to run.
Eight man front for Arizona. Two backs behind Palmer, under center. Looks very much like a run. Palmer doesn’t see the gap for Johnson, so he keeps it and rolls right. The play-action fools Robertson, who drives toward the line. Niklas is more alone than any other other receiver has been all day. Touchdown. And that is that.
The QB earns the big buck by being able to make swift judgment calls based on limited information. The best QB’s may not have the strongest throwing arm or be fastest on their feet. You can often see this in their stats. They will have the ability to make the decisions on the fly that get the job done over and over. doing this takes experience, which is why most QB’s seem to be at their best towards the ends of their careers. In any case it’s judgment that wins the big bucks.