Now that Carson Palmer is the future in Oakland, it’s worth wondering what his long term prospects look like. Despite some strange draft decisions, the Raiders have done a tremendous job recently in acquiring talent. Presumed draft busts like Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey suddenly look like they might fulfill their prodigious potential. With Oakland surrendering a king’s ransom to get him, Carson Palmer is now the lynchpin of the whole project.
Palmer didn’t look good in his Raiders debut, but that can be explained away by his lack of familiarity with the offense. If we want to get a feel for his likely range of outcomes, we need to look at his historical comparisons. For this study I focused on QBs who played extensively during their age 28-31 seasons and were similar in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt, and QB rating.
The resulting list makes up an eclectic mix. You have the first round picks (Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman, Jim Everett, Kerry Collins, Ken O’Brien) and the late round diamonds (Marc Bulger, Elvis Grbac, Stan Humphries, Mark Rypien). An undrafted free agent, Jon Kitna belongs in the latter group. Jake Plummer was picked early in Round 2 and arguably belongs in the former.
Most importantly, this is an all-star cast of characters. While their late career performances tend to prejudice our recollections, almost all of these quarterbacks were held in very high regard entering their age 32 seasons.
Unfortunately, age 32 was the point at which many of these players started to fall off the cliff. The average numbers for their age 32 seasons will be disheartening to Raider fans. The QBs averaged 9.2 starts and finished a shade under .500 (4.2-5). They completed 56% of their passes for 1963 yards, averaging 11.4 TDs and 9.3 INTs. Their 6.45 yards per attempt was quite low, and helps explain a 74.4 QB rating.
Those results do not include Elvis Grbac who retired after a thoroughly desultory season with the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens. In his age 30 season, Grbac threw for over 4000 yards for the Chiefs and appeared to have many years left. His decision to walk away probably anticipated the type of collapse his peers were facing.
Let’s break the QBs down into groups.
Those who were completely done
Marc Bulger – Bulger had the misfortune of playing QB during Scott Linehan’s reign of dissolution in St. Louis. His last 35 starts yielded a 5-30 record. (Before that time, Bulger was a sterling 36-24.) Bulger’s age 32 season lasted 8 games. He completed 57% of his passes and threw 5 TDs to 6 INTs. He moved to Baltimore to be a backup and then retired.
Jake Plummer – Plummer’s age 29-31 seasons were magical from a win-loss perspective (32-11), but Mike Shanahan was already looking for the coming thing, drafting Jay Cutler in the first round of the 2006 draft. Plummer made the Pro Bowl at age 31, completed 55% of his passes to go along with a negative TD/INT ratio (11-13) at age 32, and was out of football at 33.
Stan Humphries – Humphries led the Chargers to the playoffs three times, including his age 30 season. At age 32, Humphries notched the first losing record of his career, completed 54% of his passes, and put up a negative TD/INT ratio (5-6). He never played again, at least partly due to repeated concussions.
Mark Rypien – Rypien led Washington to a Super Bowl title in his age 29 season but lost his job after a troubling age 30 season was backed up by a disastrous age 31 campaign. He stayed in the league for five more years, switching teams each season, and starting only 6 more games.
Ken O’Brien – O’Brien never quite lived up to his 1st round pick status despite a tremendous sophomore season that saw him lead the Jets to the playoffs. He was actually voted to the Pro Bowl after his age 31 season, despite marginal numbers. He started only seven more games in his career.
Not completely done, but certainly not worth the draft pick haul
Kerry Collins – Collins has always been something of an enigma. His career completion percentage (55.7%), TD/INT ratio (208-196), and QB rating (73.8) are all well below modern NFL standards for competency, and yet the Indianapolis Colts still saw fit to guarantee him a not insignificant amount of money to be their emergency starter during his age 39 season. Collins led the NFL in INTs during his age 32 season and from age 32-35 – presumably the ones the Raiders are heavily emphasizing in make the Palmer deal – he lurched his way to an 8-24 record. It is definitely worth noting that he threw more than 500 passes at both 32 and 33. Collins also came from nowhere at age 36 to throw 400 passes and lead* the Titans to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Since his numbers actually weren’t that good, it’s no surprise he started the next season 0-6 and was benched.
Jim Everett – Everett was a star early in his career and cobbled together a strong stretch from 28-31. He has probably the strongest age 32 season with 3970 yards and 26 TDs. He collapsed the following year, going 3-12 with only 12 TDs against 16 INTs. His ypa fell to 6.0, well below his career average. He made only one more start.
Troy Aikman – Aikman was synonymous with NFL greatness during the first half of the ‘90s. He made the Pro Bowl every year from age 25 to age 30 and led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships. From age 32 to age 34, Aikman lost exactly as many games as he won (18), failed to complete 60% of his passes in any season, failed to reach 3000 yards in any season, and failed to throw 20 TDs in any season. Concussions played a role in his subsequent retirement.
Drew Bledsoe – Bledsoe threw for 3000 yards every season from age 22 to age 30 except for the injury-ruined 2001 season where he watched Tom Brady lead the Pats to the Super Bowl. In a less pass-friendly era, Bledsoe hit 4000 yards three times. It’s easy to forget he was still in his prime when the Pats let him go to Buffalo where he immediately threw for 4359 yards at age 30. Bledsoe was serviceable if not dominant at age 32 and was signed by the Cowboys the next year, probably with similar expectations to what the Raiders have now. His yards per attempt leapt again in that first season with the Boys, but he was benched after a brutal 6 game stretch to start his age 34 season. He then retired.
The Best of the Bunch . . . depending on how you view wins and losses
Jon Kitna – It’s surprising that the one QB who enjoyed some real statistical success after his 32nd birthday was the only one undrafted. Of course, Kitna has always been a pretty strange dude and perhaps all the yardage he put up was ultimately meaningless. After a strong age 31 season for the Cincinnati Bengals, Kitna was benched for none other than Carson Palmer. Kitna sat on the bench for two seasons before moving on to Detroit. At age 34 and 35, Kitna put on an aerial show, eclipsing 4000 yards both times. He posted significantly higher ypa numbers than at any time earlier in his career. Of course, Kitna’s record during that time period was an unseemly 10-22 as Detroit was gearing up for a (successful) run at 0-16 the following year. He contributed by throwing at least 20 INTs in both seasons, while struggling to punch the ball in the end zone. Kitna is still in the NFL at age 39 but with a 14-31 record since turning 32, his impact in the win column has been decidedly negative.
Troy Aikman, Drew Bledsoe, and Jim Everett were all probably better than Carson Palmer at the same point in their careers. None of them would have been worth a 1st and conditional 2nd. When you consider the physical infirmities Palmer is dealing with, this trade looks like a debacle for Oakland right out of the chute.
The legend of Brett Favre combined with statements by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning suggesting they plan to play well into their 40s has created a false sense of the expected level of QB play after age 31. Even for very good players – and the players who are historical comparisons for Palmer were very good – the forecast is bleak.
Hopefully this won’t turn out to be a franchise-destroying trade right at the point that the Raiders really appear ready to overtake the rest of the AFC West. But the prognosis doesn’t look promising.