Bengals at ease with Palmer possible backup

5-2-03, 7:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Carson Palmer showed up with enough of his customary poise and polish to convince even one of his competitors that the time may be near for the NFL's No. 1 draft pick.

Maybe not now. Maybe not this season.

But.

Even head coach Marvin Lewis seemed to think Palmer can handle the backup job now to Jon Kitna after watching the first two NFL practices of his career Friday on the first day of the club's second voluntary minicamp weekend at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I think our reason for drafting Carson is that we would feel comfortable with him as the second quarterback," Lewis said. "We felt that good about him, so. . ."

So, what of Akili Smith, a No. 3 draft pick from 1999 who lived what Palmer is living and is dueling with him for the backup job? Even Smith concedes Palmer has the look of a quarterback on the verge of making it.

"Whatever they want to do. If it's No. 2 or No. 3, I'm happy to have a job," Smith said. "Whatever the plan is, fine, but in my mind I'm fighting Kitna. I'm not boasting or bragging. I'm just not worried about Carson because this is all new to him and it will be for awhile.

"I can tell, once (Palmer) gets a little more comfortable with this offense, he'll be a great quarterback in this league," Smith said. "And he'll have plenty of time until we get to (training camp at) Georgetown. He's polished, he's got a good release, he throws a good ball. He's worthy of the No. 1 pick."

He's got that. . .look as he throws the ball over the top and out of a textbook. Kitna seemed to be saying if you looked up "quarterback," in the dictionary,

you would find a picture of Palmer.

"Johnny Be Good, you guys have seen that movie," Kitna said. "Southern California. 6-foot-5, blond hair. I think he has blue eyes, but I don't really know.

"He seems to be handling it very well," Kitna said. "Maybe inside his mind he's saying, 'Boy, things are really fast,' but it looks like it hasn't bothered him. He doesn't look jittery at all. I was impressed with him today."

But even the No. 1 pick has to get used to the fast forward mode of the highlight play NFL. Palmer, who completed more than 63 percent of his passes at USC this past season in throwing for nearly 4,000 yards, tried to connect on a post in the morning practice. But the window isn't as big in college and it closes quicker on Sundays than Saturdays. This time, the middle linebacker tipped it away.

"It's going to take me a few more practices and a few more days to get adjusted to the speed," Palmer said. "It's faster, but it makes you a better quarterback. The defenses are so much better, it makes you more competitive. It makes you be more tight with your throws and be more disciplined with your decisions. It's a trade off both ways. It's not like you get into a (situation) where it's so fast you can't catch up. You speed up naturally because you have to in order to make some throws. . . .Everybody is faster. I just have to play a little faster."

Palmer is getting the old Crash Course 101 from quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and he can finally talk to him over tape instead of a fax machine. Palmer admits he's far from comfortable with the offense and that he's got a long way to go. But it depends who you ask.

"He impressed us with how he handled things mentally and his grasp of things in a short period of time with limited meetings," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.

One of the knocks Palmer had in college was that it took him too long to pick up the playbook. What the critics forget to add is that he basically went through four systems and once he had the same one two years in a row, he won the Heisman Trophy. He plans to absorb it in chunks.

"A couple of phases," Palmer said of the learning progression. "Right, now it's introduction. Then its defensive coverages. Then the harder stuff, the route combinations and formations against different defenses."

Kitna is helping, but he doesn't want to go overboard, and he poked fun at the aura around a No. 1 pick. Asked how he approaches Palmer, Kitna said it wasn't like, "Carson, sign this." Kitna is glad he's finally got rookies in the position, adding college free agent Ryan McCann of Tennessee-Chattanooga to the mix, because they pay for everything from morning doughnuts to fines and, as Kitna said, Palmer has the money to pay for it.

"He's easy to get along with and that's been nice," Kitna said. "He's not one of these guys that knows everything. . . He's got a lot of things going on. He s got enough people talking to him right now. When he wants to know something, he'll ask me."

People keep asking Palmer the perception question, and after Thursday's splashy introduction to Cincinnati that included a stadium club luncheon overlooking downtown while the NFL commissioner extolled the virtues of the franchise, Palmer has to be wondering what people were talking about.

"Because I'm so young and naïve, I think we're great," Palmer said. "Chad Johnson and Corey Dillon and seeing all these guys, I'm thinking we're awesome. Who knows if I'm right and who knows if I'm wrong? I haven't been drafted by another team. It's tough to tell, but my first impression is it's awesome. I'm excited that there's so much talent out here. Flat out good players. The question is to me, is everybody this way? I don't have the experience to know that."

Smith has never been anywhere but here, too. But he did have the experience Palmer had Friday four years ago, but he thinks it will turn out better for Palmer. After this weekend, Palmer plans to return in two weeks for on-field coaching sessions. Smith missed all but a weekend of the spring workouts his rookie year because of Oregon's June 11 graduation. He didn't get to training camp until two days left because of a holdout, and that compounded the fact he had less than 20 Division I starts. Because Palmer is already signed, his 45 starts at USC won't miss a snap.

"I remember everybody taking pictures of me that first day," Smith said. "He's off to a much better start than I was."

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