Carson Palmer - USC

Finally finding stardom
The route was circuitous, but USC's Carson Palmer found the path to greatness.

The Orange County Register

LOS ANGELES - Santa Margarita had a nifty surprise for Servite, back in the 1997 playoffs. It was a double-pass flea-flicker on the first play of the game, a little parting gift for senior Carson Palmer.

"It was a quarterback's dream," said Savanna coach Tim O'Hara, Santa Margarita's offensive coordinator at the time.

Except Palmer came to the line of scrimmage and noticed only five Servite linemen "in the box."

Out with the double pass. In with an audible, an inside run to Bryant Wolfsberger.

"Went 80 yards for a touchdown," O'Hara said. "That's the kind of guy Carson Palmer is."

Palmer was often called the best high school quarterback in Orange County history, a 6-foot-5 Troy Aikman who could run.

On Saturday, Palmer is favored to become USC's fifth Heisman Trophy winner.

In the torturous in-between, he also qualified for an award he never could have visualized: Comeback Player of the Year.

As recently as 2000, when Palmer threw 18 interceptions and 16 touchdowns, many USC fans lamented the fact that Jason Thomas had transferred to UNLV and Palmer had stayed in L.A.

You heard it all. Palmer was not Mensa material. He forced too many throws. His haste to run and attack defenders dealt him a broken collarbone at Oregon in '99. He performed disastrously as a freshman at UCLA and was ripped afterward by Bruins linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. Palmer was such a lost soul he wound up becoming a senior, when Tim Couch and Akili Smith and many other fidgety QBs were turning pro as juniors.

"When I first saw him I thought, oh, no, here's the guy coming after my job," said quarterback Mike Van Raaphorst, a senior in 2000. "But we wound up rooming together for three years. He never blamed anybody for anything."

Others do. The rescue of Carson Palmer officially began Dec. 15, 2000, when USC replaced Paul Hackett with Pete Carroll, who, shortly afterward, hired Norm Chow as offensive coordinator.

The scales fell from Palmer's eyes. Since the fifth game of the '01 season, he has thrown 43 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and USC is 15-4.

Part of it is a quarterback who will turn 23 on Dec. 27, toying with teen-agers. But much of it is a comprehensible system, the one Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer enjoyed when Chow was at BYU.

"Carson's a sickening freak of an athlete," said Petros Papadakis, a USC running back through 2000 who now works on the Fox and USC networks. "But he was set up to fail."

Hackett's offense required seven-step drops and intricate progressions. "One of their coaches complained Carson was having trouble picking up his fourth reads," O'Hara said. "I told him we never had any fourth reads."

Palmer also had different teachers. Ex-Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien was his position coach in '99, but Hackett let him go after the season. Hue Jackson attempted to be the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach after that.

"I've always thought the West Coast offense was great if you had a 35-year-old quarterback and 35-year-old receivers, like Oakland does," Papadakis said, "but here you were asking an 18-year-old from Orange County, with 18-year-old receivers, to make all these reads and progressions. There was also no running game, and you were asking Carson to take a seven-step drop while you were asking the left tackle to keep (Cal's) Andre Carter blocked one-on-one. It just wasn't going to work."

"There's a twilight zone between the huddle and the line of scrimmage, and a lot of things can disappear there," said Bill Cunerty, who coached at Saddleback College. "The problem is, you had to be from MIT to figure out a lot of Paul's plays. That's when you'd run into the delay-of-games, the killer penalties."

Hackett, who declined to be interviewed, is the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets. His detached approach was less reassuring to Palmer than Carroll's magnetism. "Pete's the kind of guy you could play the Turkey Bowl with and then have a beer afterward," Van Raaphorst said.

Chow's system emphasized quick passes, rollouts, screens and simplicity. The personnel then jelled - Mike Williams, Kareem Kelly and Keary Colbert catching, Justin Fargas and Malaefou MacKenzie in the backfield.

"Norm's key is the BYU triangle principle," Cunerty said. "There's always a triangle of receivers there. There's no indecision. If you wait until the defense has a chance to charge and recover, then you have to be way better than the defense to succeed. In Norm's system, you get the ball off before that happens."

"We wanted Carson to anticipate and react quicker," said Steve Sarkisian, the quarterbacks coach who also played for Chow at BYU. "The more he did, the more he was able to anticipate the calls before they came in.

"At one point his eyes were unsure, his posture was unsure, but this year he stepped into the throws better.

"We went from last in the league in (giving up) sacks to first. And as far as the intangibles go, he's the best. You have to drag him off the practice field."

But Palmer still had to take the blows and make the throws, and there is unanimous glee at USC that the story is ends so symmetrically.

"Carson just has too many weapons to account for, and he's just too hot to stop," Papadakis said. "Notre Dame (44-13) was the culmination. He threw those two picks and it didn't matter.

"Football's a very circumstantial game. Not often do you see justice."