THE BENGALS went 6--0 in the AFC North to win the division last year but still had one glaring need to fill in the off-season: competent targets for quarterback Carson Palmer. Through free agency Cincinnati signed a couple of accomplished but moody receivers—Antonio Bryant (last with the Bucs, since cut) and Terrell Owens (the Bills). Through the draft Cincy plucked Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham, the best tight end that coach Marvin Lewis has scouted in his eight-year Bengals tenure, and Jordan Shipley of Texas, the most accomplished slot receiver in NCAA history. Mission accomplished. The offense, then, should be in good shape—assuming Carson Palmer is still Carson Palmer.
He certainly didn't look like a franchise quarterback in the last two games of 2009. A career 63.2% passer, he completed just 40.4% of his throws in a pair of losses to the Jets, one to end the regular season and another in a wild-card playoff game. The arctic conditions in the Meadowlands might have contributed to the first defeat, but Palmer created his own cold streak at Paul Brown Stadium six days later, when he appeared to be on a different planet from his receivers. So while curious Bengals fans flocked to training camp this summer to look at new faces like Owens and troubled cornerback Pacman Jones, most eyes should have been riveted on the 30-year-old quarterback. Because if he's not right, all the weapons in the world won't propel the Bengals past this season's wild-card round.
"I've watched that playoff game over and over," Palmer said during camp. "There's a bunch of plays I wish I could have back—four throws I wish I could have back. I was hurrying my feet. We could have had a big gain on one play and I hurried, and I threw it over [Chad Ochocinco's] head. That's on me. But I can either say, 'Woe is me,' or I can figure out what I need to do to play better."
Palmer spent considerable time this off-season fixing his footwork. In the past Palmer has drifted back with the snap, surveyed his receivers and then moved his feet in the direction he planned to throw. This season, when he plans to throw to the left, he's not going to take as long to point his feet toward his intended receiver, thus saving time against defenses such as those of Baltimore and Pittsburgh that specialize in forcing QBs to rush their throws.
Of course, come midseason Palmer may not be as worried about mechanics as he is about ball distribution. Needy receivers Ochocinco and Owens are likely to be chirping if they don't get enough touches, and the Bengals didn't draft Gresham and Shipley to sit on the bench. The 6'5", 261-pound Gresham is, quite simply, a wide receiver playing tight end. And Lewis was worried in camp about making sure the Bengals gave Shipley enough snaps so that he'd become the slot receiver Palmer has not had in his six seasons as Cincy's starter.
Keeping the receivers happy is further complicated by the Bengals' transition to a more run-oriented offense. Behind workhorse back Cedric Benson, Cincinnati rushed the ball on 50% of its offensive snaps last year—an increase from 42% over the previous two seasons—and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says that balance won't change much in 2010, despite the additions to the passing game.
"There's definitely potential for problems," Palmer said concerning ball distribution. "But we saw what wins in the AFC North last year. What wins is running for 120 yards or more every week in the division. We are a running football team."
Palmer had a good summer throwing the ball—"Carson looks absolutely fantastic," Ochocinco said early in camp—and because of all the attention to the newcomers, he was able to work on his adjustments in peace. What Lewis admires in Palmer is his ability to shrug off adversity. The coach is confident that his QB can put out the wildfires sure to come in the passing game this year. Palmer agrees.
"I believe that if any quarterback can deal with the kind of issues we might have, it's me," Palmer says. "There will be some arguments, but they'll be out of passion. And I've been around for a while. I'll handle them."
He'd better. The most anticipated Bengals season in years will depend on Palmer's steady hand on the field and in the locker room.