One day before the Oakland Raiders took on the San Diego Chargers in the 2011 debut of the NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football" coverage, I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN "NFL Matchup" to spend some time in our weekly podcast talking about any positive signs in Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer's performance in his first full start for his new team. The Raiders lost to the Denver Broncos, 38-24, and Palmer threw his sixth pick in six quarters since returning to the NFL after insisting that he'd never play for his former team, the Cincinnati Bengals, again.
"He was making big-time throws," Cosell said. "The ball came out with velocity, and people are going to point to the three picks [against the Broncos], but picks are an odd thing. You have to look at each one — you can't just look at a number. He made some great throws in this game, I thought the ball came out extremely well, and I thought he read coverage well. So, we'll see. He's a repetition player — he needs repetitions. The touchdown pass he threw to Marcel Reece — I don't know how many quarterbacks in the league are even willing to pull the trigger on that."
What a difference a few days makes. Against the Chargers in a 24-17 victory that gave Oakland sole possession of the AFC West lead, Palmer maintained a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 into the late third quarter and threw the deep ball with impressive aplomb. His once-doubted ability to get the ball downfield consistently was in display on two touchdown passes to rookie receiver sensation Denarius Moore, and Palmer finished the evening with 14 completions in 20 attempts for 299 yards and those two scores. A late interception ruined his shot at perfection, but not much else went wrong for the quarterback who had forced a trade to the Raiders just a few weeks ago.
"I have a lot to clean up," Palmer told the NFL Network right after the game. "I had a couple of things I'd like to do better — I made some mistakes. But like I said, when our defense holds them and stops them like they did at the end of the game … that offense is so potent. But I need to keep improving, keep getting better, and keep working on the little things. Just getting more comfortable the more reps I get."
Palmer didn't have to do too much because running back Michael Bush, starting for the injured Darren McFadden, amassed the second-most total yards in a single-game in franchise history -- his 242 yards fell just 5 yards short of Art Powell's team record set in 1962.
One thing that helped the offense a lot was Palmer's ability to run the no-huddle offense and connect with his new receivers. "The no-huddle is something that I'm really used to — I've been doing my entire career. We do have a young offense and young receivers, but they don't know any different. You come in and you teach them the offense, and teach them the no-huddle. They don't know if it's information overload, or just normal. They're young guys and they're hungry — we have a couple of veteran guys up front. They picked it up extremely fast, and we just have to keep building on it and working on it."
Palmer never had this kind of receiver speed at Cincinnati, and he talked about that after the game. "Just pure speed? I don't know if you can match this speed in the rest of the league. Unfortunately, we lost Jacoby [Ford] and I don't know how long he'll be out, but he can just flat run. Denarius is special. For a rookie to come in and play the way he's played — he's just nasty. He's strong, he fights, and he's a scrapper. And then, Darrius Heyward-Bey ran a four-two-something at the combine … so I don't know if you can match this speed throughout the league. They're young, they're hungry, and they want to get better. They're still raw, and there's a lot of room for improvement, but there's a lot of guys who want to get better each week.
When asked what he was doing just a month ago before he got another chance to play, Palmer mentioned that he was trying to get to Qualcomm Stadium a different way. "I was hitting up [Chargers head coach] Norv [Turner] for tickets at one point — I wanted to bring my son to a game. And then, a couple weeks later, I'm here playing."
Turner may have wished he was somewhere else — his Chargers lost their third game in 11 days, and fourth straight game overall. Quarterback Philip Rivers was plagued with subpar protection, especially after left tackle Marcus McNeill was hurt, and he struggled with pressure at different points through the game.
"I'm really not frustrated," Rivers said after the game. "I want us to keep fighting. Everybody wants to know the answer to how we can get on a roll … we win a game. Forget getting on a roll; just win a game. I don't know … if there's one thing we all knew [to turn it around], we'd do it.
"It's been worse than this before. We're 4-5, and it's a rough stretch, but we still have a lot of football left, and all of our goals are attainable."