Backup QB derby begins

5-2-03, 4:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

For the first time since sophomore year in high school, Carson Palmer doesn't line up as the starting quarterback. For the first time in Bob Bratkowski's three seasons as Bengals offensive coordinator, there is no quarterback derby to start the season. But there is a derby for the backup spot. So Palmer, the league's No. 1 draft pick, and Akili Smith, the No. 3 draft pick from 1999, start their duel for the No. 2 job Friday in the first day of a weekend minicamp they are to split 55 percent of the snaps. Starter Jon Kita gets 45 percent.

Head coach Marvin Lewis says there is no No. 2, but that Palmer and Smith, "will make the decision for me by how they play." Smith has the edge in his knowledge of the playbook. Palmer has the edge in his salary. But Lewis said the decision won't come down to dollars.

Bratkowski is striving to make the backup derby as fair as he made the races for No. 1 in 2001 and 2002. It's easier because he can do that at No. 2, and still give the starter the work he needs.

"Akili and Carson will get about the equal number of snaps in camp," Bratkowski said. "One will alternate with the second group in one drill. The next time the other guy will start the drill as the second quarterback so they can both get work with the second unit and get to know the guys on the second offense."

Palmer got his first taste of Cincinnati in Paul Brown Stadium's East Club Lounge at Thursday's luncheon with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. It was also where Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winner from USC, met Anthony Munoz, the Hall-of-Fame Bengal from USC whose youth foundation received a civic award from Tagliabue.

"It was great to see how fired up everybody is about this team and this organization with what Coach Lewis is doing, and to see how a guy like Anthony Munoz is involved in the community," Palmer said. "He congratulated me on the season and said how excited he was to see where 'SC is now."

Where Palmer is now is no-man's-land. He's jacked up for Friday because he's got so much pent up. He hasn't lined up with a team since January, but he's only got a week in the Bengals' playbook after it was overnighted to him the day before the NFL Draft and the day after he signed his six-year, $40 million contract. But he won't try and win the job on Friday.

""I just want to complete the ball and not be confused because the offense is so new," Palmer said. "I just want to be efficient and compete balls. I'll take my shots, but the quarterback can't be greedy and out there to show his arm off. It's all about controlling the team and that's what I'm going to try and do."

Trivia? Who was the quarterback who last played in front of Palmer?

"Chris Collins who went on to play at Stanford," Palmer said. "I played a couple of games for the JVs and a couple for the varsity and then I broke my collarbone and was out for the year."

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NEW RUN:** There was a Corey Dillon sighting at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday, signifying his presence at minicamp this weekend after raising hackles for missing last month's session because of family matters. He gets an immediate dose of Marvin Lewis' new era with a re-configured offensive line and a slightly re-tooled running game. He also is scheduled to make an appearance in the media room Friday, and the last time that happened was during the 2001 season.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is shooting for what he calls a more "streamlined," running game, tweaking a scheme so it melds a combination of different styles of blocking with fewer running plays.

"We want to become good at a few things," Bratkowski said. "We're still going to do a lot of different things, but we want to concentrate on fewer plays so we get more consistent and we can make sure we're able to hang our hat on some certain things week after week."

For the first time in four seasons, Rich Braham doesn't begin the season as the starting center. Right guard Mike Goff does what Braham did in 1999 and makes the move from guard to center. Matt O'Dwyer moves from left to right and the Bengals make immediate room for second-round pick Eric Steinbach at left guard.

But Bratkowski said they'll continue to line up in different ways with different people until something clicks. Long-time backup center Brock Gutierrez and second-year man Thatcher Szalay are to get snaps there this weekend, as well as incumbent Rich Braham after he just signed to a one-year deal as a backup guard-center.

"We're trying for the best combination of what is becoming a more and more talented offensive line," Bratkowski said. "I'm very excited to have Richie back. I think his veteran presence and his experience helps make us a better team. Matt has played in this league as a right guard (in 1998 with the Jets) and it will be a bit of an adjustment to go back, but it shouldn't take too long."

**

ALL IN THE POOL:ESPN.com reported the amount of the NFL team's rookie pools and the Bengals had the fourth most in the league at $5.238 million. The Bengals picked first, but Detroit had 11 overall picks and Chicago and Baltimore each two first-round picks to get more than Cincinnati. The Bengals used most of the pool to sign the draft's No. 1 pick, Carson Palmer, and ESPN.com reflects the hit in their salary cap survey to show the Bengals are $2.2 million under the cap. It's believed once the Bengals sign their eight other picks, they'll have to cut players. Not because of being over the cap, but because they're getting under the roster limit for training camp. A total of 20 teams have more money under the cap than the Bengals, ESPN said.

MARVINMANIA:** Marvin Lewis has yet to head coach a down in the league and already NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is comparing him to giants like Bill Cowher, Chuck Noll and Marv Levy. Bengals President Mike Brown has told Lewis he wants to make sure he doesn't put too many responsibilities on himself, but Lewis is confident he knows where he can draw the line.

Tagliabue repeated the Noll-Cowher comparison made by Steelers own Dan Rooney, one of Lewis' old bosses.

"In terms of his values and his style," Tagliabue said. "Whether he succeeds as those did has yet to be proven, but in terms of their expectation and interest around the league, I think the hiring of Marvin Lewis is definitely a strong point of interest."

With all the positive press that has enveloped the Lewistown Bengals, Lewis was asked Thursday about the pressure of coming through on the expectations. So Lewis pulled out a Noll story from a golf outing when Lewis was the Steelers linebackers coach in the early '90s to dismiss the pressure: "(Noll) said pressure was when you know you can't make that putt. . . we can do what we're setting out to do. That's to be a team that wins more games than they lose and has an opportunity go forward and win a championship. Those are our goals. We can't be afraid to strive to be great."

Even rookie quarterback Carson Palmer has noticed his new coach's busy schedule. Coaching during the day and hitting the community events at night. Brown has apparently expressed his concerns and hopes Lewis won't overdo it.

"I think Mike's biggest concern for me is for me to keep in perspective what my job is and that's to win football games," Lewis said. "He doesn't want me to get stretched too thin. I'm not. I know what I love to do is coach, and now we get a chance to do that."

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