What the Bengals are learning is that Palmer's first priority is making those around him comfortable. At his charity golf tournament he quizzed Survivor cast member Rob Mariano about life on reality television, helped Rudi Johnson with his putting and, after Mariano and an East Coast businessman in Palmer's group said they worshipped the Red Sox, pledged to be a Boston fan for the afternoon. Rarely did the conversation turn to football. "I don't like it when people think athletes are more special than they are," Palmer says. "I'm as normal as anybody except for the fact that I may be better at football."
His good nature helped him through adversity early in his college career. A highly regarded recruit when he got to USC in 1998, he started the last five games as a freshman for an 8-5 team that lost to TCU in the Sun Bowl. A broken right collarbone in the third game of his sophomore year sidelined him for the season, but he was granted a medical redshirt. The next fall Palmer tied a school record with 18 interceptions as USC went 5-7.
By the time Pete Carroll took over as coach in 2001, Palmer was used to taking the blame for USC's failures. However, there was plenty of blame to go around when the Trojans finished 6-6 while adjusting to the quick-read system of new offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Heading into his senior season, Palmer had thrown as many interceptions (39) as touchdown passes. He wasn't even featured on the cover of the USC media guide that year, but by the end of a stunning turnaround season he needed security guards to lead him through giddy fans at the practice field. Throwing for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions, Palmer won the Heisman and set four Pac-10 career records.
Those experiences at USC helped prepare him for life in the NFL. When Marvin Lewis's plan to give his rookie passer game experience didn't pan out—because Cincinnati was in the running for a playoff spot all the way to the final week—Palmer didn't gripe. He found other ways to develop, such as studying the game-management skills of the Tennessee Titans' Steve McNair and the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and running through a five-minute drill at the end of each practice that required him to execute plays against a variety of exotic blitzes. When Palmer went home, he'd eat dinner with Shaelyn and marvel at his first pressure-free football season in years. "I realized how much I missed the responsibility," he says.
Palmer wasn't surprised when he was told in February that he had been promoted to starter, but he was impressed with how Kitna handled the situation. The only disappointment Kitna showed came when Lewis informed him of the decision. Kitna responded by saying, "I made that decision tough on you, didn't I?" The two quarterbacks crossed paths in San Diego shortly after the announcement, and Kitna told Palmer he had his full support. "When they drafted Carson, I didn't think it was necessary, but their direction was clear," Kitna says. "This year is his time."
Nevertheless, Palmer realizes he has little margin for error. "The quarterback position will not lose games for this team," Lewis says. According to offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowksi, if Palmer struggles, "we won't have a quick hook; we'll have to assess whether Carson is the problem or it's the people around him."
Says Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose unit is scheduled to test Palmer in Week 3, "I think they'll go back to Jon pretty fast if Carson struggles."
Palmer seems unfazed about taking over a longtime NFL doormat that suddenly has playoff aspirations. "I'm sure the sentiment is, We were an 8-8 team with Jon, so imagine how great we'll be with Carson," Palmer says. "That's pressure, but I can't worry about how what we do compares to what we did last year. All I can do is play."
2. Can the fifth running back picked in the draft revive the COWBOYS' ground game?
With a rushing attack that averaged only 3.9 yards per carry in the first season A.E. (After Emmitt), Dallas was in position to select a marquee running back with its first-round draft pick. Yet the Cowboys passed on Steven Jackson, Kevin Jones and Chris Perry when their turn came at No. 22, instead trading down and taking Julius Jones of Notre Dame at No. 43.