If you’re looking for a crack or a wayward word or a media meltdown, you’re looking at the wrong guy. Whether he’s the first pick in the draft, a playoff quarterback, the Pro Bowl MVP, or the man who has thrown 12 interceptions in the longest losing streak of his life, Carson Palmer never flinches.
In his 46th NFL game, he threw six touchdown passes against the Browns to give him 86 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. On Sunday he makes his 46th start since that day with 61 touchdowns and 50 interceptions and he says he doesn’t know why the numbers are like that. But he does know, “If we’re in situations down by multiple scores, I’m not going to just throw checkdowns all the way down the field and give up.”
Everyone is talking about his future, but Palmer is only taking about the next five games. His body parts have been scattered across the injury report like Saturday night in the ER, but he hasn’t missed a start. He can’t sleep but he makes sure his teammates are loose with the most absurd of gags.
As he prepared for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Saints at Paul Brown Stadium, Palmer talked about keeping his world-class cool in his most difficult of seasons when he sat down this week for a conversation with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
GH: What’s it been like?
CP: It’s been awful. You want to win every game. The competitor in you wants to win every game. Everyone on this team wants to win every game and obviously we haven’t done that, so it’s been awful.
GH: You played in a crucible in college in Los Angeles and heard the criticism. Are you hearing what they’re saying now in Cincinnati?
CP: Oh yeah. Different stuff. Trash bags thrown on the lawn. I don’t mind people yelling at me, or saying things to me in public. What bugs me a little bit is saying stuff to my wife, and your kids are around. Nobody wants their kids to go through any of that. Not that my kids are old enough to understand it, but still. That’s the only thing that bugs me. People can say whatever they want about me, it doesn’t bug me.
GH: Garbage on the lawn?
CP: Yeah. I’ve had some interesting stuff happen to me. Not fun. But it’s part of the deal.
GH: It was just a couple of years ago they were naming their kids after you.
CP: When you’re winning, everybody’s a fan and when you’re losing, nobody’s a fan. Everybody’s claiming other teams, other players. That’s sports in America, I guess … people are diehard fans. They want a winner. I don’t blame them. I’m a diehard ‘SC fan. I’m a Bengals fan, but I’m a player, so I’m not really a fan. But I’m a diehard USC fan and I want them to win every single game. When they don’t win, I’m frustrated and mad. We lost to Notre Dame the other night.
GH: You ever lost eight straight in anything?
CP: Playing pickup basketball, softball, whatever it is. I don’t know if any guys in the NFL come from a background where they’re used to losing. Rarely is there a guy that went to a small school that wasn’t good and didn’t dominate and win. That’s probably how you got here, by dominating. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but we put ourselves in this situation. We’re not pointing a finger at anybody. We realize why we’re here and we’re going to try and fight our way out of it.
GH: A lot is involved in the offense. You always take the blame. Is it frustrating when it’s not your fault and you get blamed?
CP: The way I approach my job, though, it’s my job to win the game. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is on a certain play that happens. It’s your job as the quarterback to win the game and I feel at fault when we don’t win the game if I throw eight picks or no picks. I take that upon myself. I feel that’s my role on the team, to make sure we put ourselves in situations to win games.
GH: Do you have trouble sleeping?
CP: Yeah. Some weeks more than others. I need a good six hours, or else I’m a mess. There have been plenty of weeks where I haven’t slept at all.
GH: What do you think about?
CP: Every single play, good or bad. Different situations. Different stuff going on throughout the team. Different ways to handle different situations on and off the field. Some of it is just soreness. You can’t sleep because you’re beat up. Some of it is you can’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about one or 50 plays or whatever. A million things. I’ve slept less in the last three months. Normally I sleep great.
GH: Does any one play stick out?
CP: One play from the year? No.
GH: It goes from week to week?
CP: Yeah, when I think about negative or bad plays, it’s a bunch of them from different games. There’s not one play that’s defined this year.
GH: What do you think when people say you need a change of scenery to rebuild your career? Between the coaching situation and the labor situation, everyone is really in the same boat about being up in the air.
CP: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to take it one game at a time. That’s going to be my approach and after the season is over I’ll have a chance to reflect and think about a lot of things.
I’ve got a tough enough time trying to sleep thinking about 60 other things. Trying to think about who might be the coach next year, where I might be next year, that’s even less sleep. You can’t worry about that stuff. You can’t worry about the CBA, you can’t worry about stuff you have no control over, and you can’t worry about stuff that’s so far into the future when you have so many big things, like five games, in front of those things. I can’t worry about January 5th or 6th or whenever that last game is. Three days from now we’ve got the defending champs coming to town and we’ve got a chance to beat them and stop their four-game winning streak and end our losing streak and finish out on a high note. I don’t want to lose any games. I don’t care if we’re ineligible, like USC is.
It feels like last year since we won a game. I’m worrying about the New Orleans Saints, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I don’t know who’s after that. I don’t care who’s after that. I’ll get there when I cross that bridge. Right now it’s the Saints.
GH: There’s such a difference between your first 46 games (86 TDs, 45 interceptions) and since (61, 50) that it would seem to indicate that things have either changed around you or they haven’t changed enough because you had such a great run at the beginning. What is the difference?
CP: I don’t have an answer for that. I’m just focused on one game at a time. I’m not going to worry about numbers or statistics. It doesn’t matter. I’m out of that. I don’t worry about that.
GH: Every Friday practice you and the quarterbacks have a heated competition throwing the ball into a bucket and the loser has had to do some pretty embarrassing things. How are you doing this year?
CP: I think I’ve only lost once.
GH: It’s the quarterbacks, right? You, your brother Jordan, and (Dan) LeFevour, right?
CP: And if Ced (Benson) jumps in, we spot him points.
GH: Has Ced ever won?
CP: No. In fact, I told him if he ever beats me, I will give him my parking spot for the rest of the year.
GH: Fierce stuff.
CP: It’s highly competitive. You don’t want to lose. If you lose, you’re going to look like an idiot. You don’t want to lose because you don’t want to lose.
GH: What did you have to do when you lost?
CP: I had to ride from here to Indy (for the Nov. 14 game against the Colts) without a shirt on. But I didn’t have to dress like Mr. Potato Head. That was LeFevour a couple of weeks ago. Ced had to go out to the walkthrough (Thursday), it was 30 degrees, in just spandex and a cutoff T-shirt. Freezing.
GH: He couldn’t have liked that.
CP: No, but it was great to see him freezing.
GH: It sounds like you’re still trying to keep guys loose.
CP: Especially when you’re losing, these days can just take forever. When you’ve lost eight games in a row, and you get in here at 6 a.m., and you feel like you’ve been here 10 hours and its 9:30. You still have three hours of meetings and you’ve got a bad taste in your mouth from last week ...
It’s funny. I go out early (to the walkthrough) and watch to see people’s expressions. It makes everybody laugh. I don’t care who it is, how bad of a day you’re having. It just puts a smile on guys’ faces. I love it. To see Ced come out in 32 degrees in just spandex and a cutoff T-shirt. Or seeing a guy in a Mr. Potato Head costume, or whatever it is. It kind of just keeps things loose.
GH: The big news (Thursday) was that T.O. said he’d like to come back and play with you next year. He said for coming in when he did, he thinks he’s had a pretty good year. He says if you had another year together, who knows what you could do.
CP: He’s come in and is having a Pro Bowl year. To get a guy off the street that’s going to go the Pro Bowl, probably our only Pro Bowler … he didn’t have one OTA. He came in and learned a whole new offense. He had a little bit of a slow start, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t know what his situation is. I don’t know what their situation is. That’s hypothetical.
GH: You’ve got him for the next five games, anyway.
CP: He’ll run by people, he’ll make plays. But as far as next year is concerned, that’s between him and the organization. He can’t worry about that right now and nobody else on this team can worry about that now.
GH: That’s maybe the big difference between now and four years ago. The timing. Things like the loss of Chris Henry, trying to replace him.
CP: Slim was a great player. T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) was a great player, too. It’s a different team. It’s different.
GH: The timing’s just not there. I guess that’s part of it.
CP: In some stuff.
GH: We were talking to (offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski) today and he was taking about not just you, but everybody on offense pressing to make a play. And it looks like you’ve been trying to get throws in where you never tried to get throws in before.
CP: I’ve definitely pressed late in games when we’re behind. At some point you have to try and stick it in there at the end of the game. In some plays it ends up as an interception and on some plays you squeeze it in there and it ends up being a touchdown and you’re within three or seven or you tie it up. I’m going to try and not to press.
But if we’re in situations down by multiple scores, I’m not going to just throw checkdowns all the way down the field and give up. I’m going to fight until the end and try to squeeze balls in there. If it gets picked off, it gets picked off, and I’m going to be unhappy with it, and obviously not be satisfied with it in any way. That’s the way we are. We’re going to keep fighting until the end. If we’re down three scores with a minute left, we’re going to try and get in three scores. Maybe recover an onside kick and score. That’s going to be the way we play.