11-4-04, 3 a.m.


Just before this season started, Carson Palmer had a hard time believing that the signature at the end of this one piece of fan mail really belonged to his boyhood idol.

But when Palmer saw that it was on "Troy Aikman," stationery, he realized he had a pretty special autograph.

"It was really nice," said Palmer Wednesday as he tried to recall the note. "He wrote something like, 'Wishing you the best of luck, I've been following your career, there may be bumps in the road, don't get down.'"

Aikman, the former Cowboy great, may be Palmer's hero. But the current Cowboys starter has as much in common and the same encouraging words. It was 18 long years ago when Vinny Testaverde also won the Heisman Trophy and was selected No. 1 overall.

"I've been there," said Testaverde of Palmer's first-year struggles. "Stick to what you believe in. Stick to your plan. Plan your work and then go work your plan. . .Even the greatest quarterbacks I've seen get booed."

Speaking from Dallas on a conference call Wednesday with the Bengals media, Testaverde also advised Palmer to stick with the playbook in the tough times.

"When you get the number one tag, the perception is you should be able to do more because when you go No. 1, the perception is you have more talent," Testaverde said. "But at the same time, you just need to go in and play quarterback, play your position. Do the things the coaches ask you to do and really, don't try and do more than that. When you start to do other people's jobs, that's when things go bad for you."

Sound like Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis? Why not? In 1996-97, Testaverde started 29 games for the Ravens when Lewis was Baltimore's defensive coordinator, and he says Palmer is in good hands.

"His defenses have always been great and that's what you need to win in this league," Testaverde said. "He'll be successful not before too much longer here."

Palmer is thankful to the quarterbacks fraternity that has embraced him. Even a second-rounder like Boomer Esiason.

"All quarterbacks can relate to going through tough times," Palmer said. "You're in a lot of situations you've never been in before, and at times you feel like you're in over your head. You keep fighting through it and know better days will come."

Coming out of Miami in the 1987 draft, Testaverde went to a Tampa Bay club that was known for losing. The Bengals had the same rep when Palmer came out in 2003, but Testaverde doesn't see the similarities.

He did undergo the same struggles, though . In his first seven starts, he threw eight touchdowns, had 13 picked off, and completed more than 50 percent of his passes just twice. In his first seven starts, Palmer has five touchdowns, 10 picks, and has completed better than 50 percent six times.

"I don't know that Carson is in the same situation in Tampa with the lack of talent we had down there," Testaverde said.

"He can make all the throws. He has the big arm. I watched him in college," said Testaverde, who has also seen film of him this year because of the common opponents with the Bengals. "He's still learning about the league and different defenses each week, what it takes to prepare for not only for one game but for a whole season mentally and physically. It's a lot to go through the first time out, but at the same time he's very capable of dealing with it."

But everyone from John Madden to Joe Theismann has compared Palmer to the man who went No. 1 two years after Testaverde in Aikman. They say they have similar throwing styles and height.

It just so happens that the last year the Cowboys trained in Thousand Oaks, Calif., turned out to be Aikman's rookie year in 1989, and a nine-year-old Californian got to see him for the first time.

"I was so young, I didn't know what mechanics were," Palmer said. "I was just star struck to see a Pro Bowl quarterback in person. As far as the way I play now, I don't try to emulate anyone. The way you throw the ball starts when you're four years old."

Which is Testaverde's advice. The position is hard enough, so do it your way.

Now 18 years later and 10 days shy of 41, Testaverde was asked when he finally became comfortable. After all, he entered the season in the top 11 of the all-time Big Four: passing yards, attempts, completions, and touchdowns.

"Hell," Testaverde said, "I'm still trying to get comfortable."

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