For NFL quarterbacks at this time of year, it’s all about the W.
Not the wins, but the wind.
When the calendar flips and the leaves turn, so does the weather in many NFL cities, making games colder and wetter, but also windier. And the latter can be the most cruel for someone who makes a living by trying to throw a leather ball from Point A to B.
Several games Sunday could be affected by those swirling gusts, among them the New York Jets at Chicago, Tampa Bay at Cincinnati, and Philadelphia versus Jacksonville in London.
“As a quarterback, I didn’t care if it was raining, snowing, sleeting, lightning, nothing — what mattered was wind,” said former NFL quarterback Carson Palmer, who spent his first seven seasons in Cincinnati before moving on to friendlier meteorological conditions in Oakland and Arizona’s climate-controlled dome.
“It’s just like a golfer. If it’s wet, you have a way to keep your hands and clubs dry. But as soon as the wind comes in, you can either throw in the wind or you can’t. And the only way to throw in the wind is learn it. So there was a huge learning adjustment.”
By Palmer’s thinking, the AFC North is the worst when it comes to those conditions. Whether it’s Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, or Cleveland, the wind is unpredictable and unforgiving. There’s a special emphasis put on quarterbacks there throwing with touch, knowing when to put air under the ball and let the wind take it, or powering passes through the wind.
“When you have a crosswind, a big left-to-right wind, you have to learn to throw those speed outs, those quick 10-yard outs that you have to put zip on,” he said. “If you’re a little bit behind in the NFL, that’s a pick-six. In college it’s an incomplete pass. But if the wind catches that ball and you don’t put it where it needs to be, it doesn’t matter how strong your arm is, it’s a pick-six in the NFL. These guys are that good.”
“I found out it was a great advantage for me because I had big hands and could hold onto the ball, and I could spin it in the rain,” Palmer said.
“The only time I ever felt at a disadvantage was an early game against Kerry Collins when he was in Tennessee. We had a tornado come through, one of those games where you’re driving home and it takes three hours because trees have been knocked over and power lines have fallen.”
That game was Sept. 14, 2008, when winds in Cincinnati were gusting up to 70 mph. The stadium was a centrifuge of blowing beer cups, hot dog wrappers, and plastic bags. Collins, who came off the bench to replace an injured Vince Young, didn’t throw much in that game — 14 of 21 for 128 yards — but was uncanny with his accuracy and the Titans won 24-7.
“Kerry was just picking us apart,” Palmer recalled. “I went up to him after the game and was like, `Kerry, how did you do that?’ It just seemed like every time he dropped back, he was getting completions.
“He just pulled me aside and said, ‘Man, I spent so many years playing in the Meadowlands, and understanding wind is the No. 1 thing you have to do,’” Palmer said, a reference to Collins’ years with the New York Giants. “He said, `You have to finish it off your pointer finger, and you have to throw a tight spiral. If the ball’s got a little bit of wobble…’
“Then I started to work on it. It’s something that I hung my hat on my entire career, what I learned from Kerry Collins that one day.”
Palmer is retired now, but he has looked to impart that wisdom to New York Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, another former USC standout. But experiencing that wind — as Darnold will do to some degree Sunday in Chicago — is the best way to learn.
“When you’re Sam, you don’t want to go in the bubble,” Palmer said. “You want to throw the ball outside every day, just to learn it. You can go to Oregon, you can go to Wazzu [Washington State], wherever. You don’t get the wind like you do in a place like the AFC East or AFC North.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer