2016 NFL Preview: Carson Palmer isn't holding the Cardinals back

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

When Carson Palmer dropped back to pass in the third quarter of a Week 15 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Arizona Cardinals quarterback was an MVP candidate.

He had 4,218 yards, 31 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 106.2 rating at that moment. As he followed through on second-and-9 throw to Michael Floyd, Palmer’s right index finger smashed into Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin’s left hand. He dislocated his finger.

Palmer missed one play. He played the rest of the season with his finger taped up. But he wasn’t the same. From that pass on, Palmer had 1,037 yards in a little more than four games, eight touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 77.6 rating. His completion percentage was 64.2 before the injury and 59.6 after.

He would not and has not complained that the finger affected his play. But either you believe that Palmer’s finger was the reason for his dip in play, or you think he coincidentally went from one of the best quarterbacks in football to one of the worst at the exact moment of that pass. What seems more plausible?

“You have to understand the guy Carson is. He’s not going to make excuses,” Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said in a phone interview last month. “We all know he couldn’t grip the ball the same way. It would be the same as if a pitcher dislocated his finger, or if a basketball player. If it happened to Clayton Kershaw, he wouldn’t be able to grip the ball like he needs to. If Kobe Bryant had a dislocated finger, he’d struggle to shoot dealing with that.”

The same question has been asked repeatedly about the Cardinals this offseason: Can they win it all with Palmer? That seems silly. Why are we ignoring that Palmer was one of the best quarterbacks in football most of last season before he busted his finger? But Palmer has to be the reason, when you look at the Super Bowl probabilities in Las Vegas, five teams have better odds than the Cardinals. Arizona is listed at about 10-to-1 to win it all at most sports books.

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We all have recency bias. We’re more likely to remember Palmer’s horrendous NFC championship game at the Carolina Panthers than point out he was great from the beginning of September to that Eagles game on Dec. 20. We’re more likely to remember all the interceptions against Carolina than note that the Cardinals had perhaps the best offense in football last season. Arizona averaged 6.3 yards per play, tied for best in the NFL last season (the Pittsburgh Steelers also averaged 6.3), miles ahead of the third-best team. And again, either you believe Palmer magically and randomly lost it at the exact moment his finger popped out of place in Philadelphia, or a fluke injury derailed his season.

Carson Palmer was on a near-MVP pace before suffering a finger injury (AP)
Carson Palmer was on a near-MVP pace before suffering a finger injury (AP)

I’ll choose the latter. The Cardinals will pick up right where they were that night in Philadelphia.

The finger wasn’t the only reason Palmer struggled. He made some bad decisions on those interceptions, especially against the Panthers. He’ll turn 37 in December so he’s at the age in which it can go bad in a hurry. But Palmer has at least one more fantastic season in him. And if he is the same quarterback from the past few years, the Cardinals have a championship core around him. The running game should be better with David Johnson in a starring role. The Cardinals are loaded at receiver. The defense is aggressive, fast and fun. Just to make it better, the Cardinals traded with the New England Patriots for top pass rusher Chandler Jones. And with Bruce Arians in charge, Arizona is a really well-coached team.

The Cardinals return most of their team that went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC title game. Everything is in place for them to take the next step this season, including an MVP-level quarterback.

Chandler Jones should be a huge addition to a defense that was already very good. He’s a fantastic one-on-one rusher and those guys aren’t easy to find. I also like safety Tyvon Branch, and guard Evan Mathis was a Pro Bowl player in 2013 and 2014. Mathis will turn 35 this season but the Cardinals hope he has one more good year left in him. Defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, the team’s first-round pick, is the type of player who can have a nice impact right away if he’s focused. The team lost some good players, like pass rusher Dwight Freeney and safety Rashad Johnson, but did a good job replacing them. Grade: B+

David Johnson could make a great offense even better. Cardinals coaches rave about the second-year running back. When he got a chance to shine late last season, he played very well. He’s a big-play threat in a big-play offense, and he should help provide the best offensive balance Bruce Arians has ever had in Arizona. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals offense improving much, since they ranked second in points scored and first in yards last season, but it’s possible if Johnson is as good as the coaches say he is.

Tyrann Mathieu does a little bit of everything for the Cardinals defense. And if you saw the “All or Nothing” documentary on the 2015 Cardinals (if not, you should — it’s really good), you know how respected Mathieu is in the locker room. It was clear how devastated Mathieu’s teammates were when he tore his ACL against the Eagles. Mathieu was one of the top candidates in the defensive player of the year race last season. It was a tough injury for Arizona to overcome right before the playoffs. (Forget about the Carson Palmer injury for a moment — why don’t the Cardinals get more of a pass for the Mathieu injury?)

Although the Cardinals gave Mathieu a huge contract extension recently, there’s no guarantee he returns to his usual level this season. ACL injuries aren’t as damaging as they used to be, but he did injure it late in the season and started training camp on the physically unable to perform list. And his play was a little off in 2014 after a serious knee injury the year before. It’s not like there’s panic over Mathieu right now, it’s just that the Cardinals can’t replace what he brings. If he’s not 100 percent, Arizona’s defense won’t be the same.

Carson Palmer has at least a couple good years left, but the Cardinals aren’t ready for the day when Palmer hits the wall. Drew Stanton isn’t anyone’s idea of an above-average starter, and he’s 32. Third-stringer Matt Barkley doesn’t seem to be the answer. The Cardinals have tried to develop guys like Logan Thomas and Ryan Lindley, but that didn’t work out. So when Palmer reaches the end of the line, the Cardinals are going to have to start all over at quarterback.

It took a while, but Calais Campbell is finally getting his due recognition as one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. He has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons, and probably should have made it a few times before then. Campbell will turn 30 years old on Sept. 1 and is entering the last year of his contract. If the Cardinals want to go to the Super Bowl, they’ll need another peak season out of him. Then both sides can decide what to do about the future in the offseason.

Cosell: “Their route concepts are really, really good. [Bruce] Arians has a great feel for breaking down different coverages with route concepts. Palmer is very good at understanding coverages and where to throw the ball against certain coverages … Arians’ ability to understand and break down coverages and always stress coverages at the intermediate and deeper levels is so critical. That’s something Bruce Arians believes in. He wants to stress coverage at the deeper levels. Now the defense has to defend more space.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Cardinals and the rest of the NFC West.]

From Yahoo’s Brandon Funston: “Speedy receiver John Brown flashed his downfield skills to the tune of six catches of 40-plus yards last season, good for fourth in the league and more than teammates Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald had combined. Brown has also finished among the top 10 in average depth per target in each of his two seasons in the league. He’s Arizona’s most dangerous vertical threat, and he’s making strides at becoming more than just a one-trick pony. On average, he’s going after Fitzgerald and Floyd in drafts this summer, but don’t be surprised if he finishes the season as the Cardinals’ top fantasy wideout.”

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Through five games last season Michael Floyd barely registered in the Cardinals’ offense. He had eight catches for 104 yards, and in one of those contests he had five catches for 59 yards. A bad hand injury, in which three of his fingers were dislocated during training camp, contributed to the slow start. Then he took off. Over the Cardinals’ last 11 games Floyd had 44 catches for 745 yards and six touchdowns. He had five 100-yard games in that stretch. Floyd, a former first-round pick, is just 26 years old and with Larry Fitzgerald having been moved to a slot receiver role, Floyd should put together a nice season as Arizona’s biggest target on the outside.

DO THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BEST RECEIVERS IN THE NFL?

If Martavis Bryant hadn’t gotten suspended, the Pittsburgh Steelers would probably be the answer. With Bryant out, the Cardinals have a good case.

Larry Fitzgerald moved to the slot and had 109 catches for 1,215 yards. He’s going to the Hall of Fame someday. John Brown is a great deep threat, perfect for Bruce Arians’ offense. He had 1,003 yards and has averaged 15 yards per catch in his career. Michael Floyd had 849 yards but as explained above, he practically started five weeks late because of a hand injury. Even rookie J.J. Nelson showed off some serious wheels as a fourth receiver, and Jaron Brown is capable too.

The Indianapolis Colts are strong at receiver, so are the Steelers even without Bryant, the Jacksonville Jaguars have a nice young duo and the Green Bay Packers could be up there again if everyone is healthy. But if Floyd picks up where he left off from last season, no one can match Arizona’s depth at receiver.

In Bruce Arians’ words on “All or Nothing,” the team’s only goal was putting a bleeping ring on their finger. That didn’t happen. But it was still a successful season. The Cardinals just ran up against a 15-1 Panthers team in the NFC championship game, and made too many mistakes to upset them. It was no fluke the Cardinals made it that far. There’s no question the Cardinals can win a Super Bowl. They weren’t far off last season.

Carson Palmer suddenly didn’t become washed up after playing at a top-five level for three-and-a-half months. However, that doesn’t mean Palmer won’t see his play continue to slip this season. He’s at that age in which everything is a year-to-year proposition. If Palmer’s stumble continues, there goes the Cardinals’ Super Bowl dream. Palmer is a perfect fit for Bruce Arians’ vertical attack. The Cardinals might not be terrible with a lesser Palmer or Drew Stanton at quarterback, but they wouldn’t be a title contender either.

The margin between the top four teams in these rankings is thin. The Panthers are one spot higher in the rankings, though I’m not sure if Carolina will be my Super Bowl pick by the time the preseason is done. I really like this Cardinals team and think the Chandler Jones addition was perfect for them. It’s crazy that five teams are getting better Super Bowl odds than the Cardinals. This might be the best team in football.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys
10. Minnesota Vikings
9. Kansas City Chiefs
8. Denver Broncos
7. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Green Bay Packers
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. New England Patriots
3. Seattle Seahawks

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!