1. Can Carson Palmer cut it in CINCINNATI?
The inaugural Carson Palmer Open, a festive charity golf tournament held in Newport Beach, Calif., last month, had beautiful hostesses, cocktails available at every other hole and a gourmet spread. Players admired the majestic mansions perched on the cliffs above Pelican Hills Golf Course. Amid this frivolity Palmer, the host, sat slumped in his cart on the 9th fairway, already dreading the postround speech he would have to deliver.
For Palmer, 24, the Cincinnati Bengals' second-year quarterback, it wasn't a fear of public speaking but a preference for not being the focus of attention. He's most comfortable when he can just be one of the guys, and he believes the best leaders are the ones who naturally fit in with teammates. Yet when the time came, he spoke effortlessly for 10 minutes and thanked his guests for supporting the charity the event benefited, a home for abused and disadvantaged children. What Palmer has to do next is show the same poise on the field, because with training camps opening this week, the Bengals are taking the biggest gamble in the NFL by making him their starter.
The first pick in the 2003 draft, Palmer hasn't taken a single snap in an NFL regular-season game but steps under center for an up-and-coming Cincinnati team that went 8-8 last season and avoided a losing record for only the second time since 1990. He replaces eight-year veteran Jon Kitna, who is coming off his finest season as a pro—62.3 completion percentage, 3,591 passing yards and 26 touchdowns (tied for third in the NFL)—and will be ready on the sideline should the young quarterback falter. Second-year coach Marvin Lewis has made the change because he believes Palmer is ready to start and because the Bengals didn't give the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner a seven-year, $49 million contract (including a $14 million signing bonus) to carry a clipboard. "I thought they'd wait another season to play Palmer because the team made so much progress [last season]," says an executive for another AFC club. "The last thing they want is to take a step backward."
Cincinnati fans have been down this road with highly touted quarterbacks before. David Klingler was the sixth pick in 1992, and Akili Smith went third in '99, but neither passer panned out. One factor in Palmer's favor is that he has more talent around him than Klingler and Smith had. The Bengals have a sturdy line built around tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones, a solid running game with emerging back Rudi Johnson and playmakers such as Chad Johnson, the brash Pro Bowl wideout who doesn't know what all the fuss is about. " Carson only has two jobs," says Johnson. "Read the defense and get the ball there."
That wisdom isn't lost on Palmer. "The worst thing I can do is feel like I have to make a lot of electrifying throws," he says. "It's natural to want to look like the Number 1 pick, but that's why a lot of young guys struggle. We have so many talented players that we don't need a superstar at quarterback. We just need somebody who can do his job."
Lewis expects every man on the field to be up and running. "No one man wins or loses games for us, but going with Carson means our whole team has to grow up," he says. "We can't rely on Jon anymore to tell people where to line up or what adjustments to make."
At 6'5", 235 pounds, Palmer is bigger than Kitna and has a stronger arm, and he's surprisingly mobile. Cincinnati plans to incorporate more deep throws into the game plan, but the key to the offense's success will be Palmer's ability to grasp the nuances of being an NFL quarterback.
During the off-season Palmer and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese analyzed game tapes of every pass coverage that Kitna faced in 2003 and how Kitna reacted to them. Zampese also drilled Palmer on terminology and defensive fronts so they can communicate easily between snaps. They worked on the quarterback's presence in the huddle and at the line because the laid-back Palmer didn't have a commanding voice. To correct that, he would call plays aloud while walking around his suburban Cincinnati home.
Even as a newcomer and a backup last season, Palmer laid the groundwork for a leadership role. At least 15 players and their families routinely attended the weekly Monday Night Football parties that Palmer and his wife, Shaelyn, hosted at their home. During the winter Palmer and several offensive linemen and tight ends donned camouflage and trekked into the woods behind his house for games of paintball. Teammates roll their eyes when Palmer, a native of Southern California, tries to tell them how much he likes Cincinnati, but they also admire his humility. When Anderson asked Palmer last fall about winning the Heisman at Southern Cal, the rookie downplayed the achievement. " Ray Lewis doesn't care about the Heisman," he said, referring to the Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro linebacker.