8-17-03, 6:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
You can't say he doesn't play hurt, because he was the star of the game despite missing all but one practice this week at training camp with a sore plant foot.
You can't say he locks on to one receiver, because he found six different catchers on his seven completions.
You can't say he holds on to the ball, or doesn't find ways to score, or raises the ire of his teammates. He has yet to take a sack, has led the Bengals to all four of their pre-season touchdowns, and he's done it with a that's-what-I-get-paid-to-do modesty.
But the one thing you can say is that rookie Carson Palmer is not going to be the Bengals' Opening Day quarterback. Head coach Marvin Lewis remains committed to Jon Kitna for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against Denver.
Palmer even did that perfectly Saturday night, after lighting up the Lions' reserves in the third quarter on seven of seven passing for 97 yards and two touchdowns to fuel the 23-10 win in the best Cincinnati debut since they put cheese on chili.
Paul Brown Stadium is now unofficially Carson City.
"No, absolutely not," said Palmer, when asked if there is controversy.
That seems to be the consensus. After all, he's done his work against backup defenses playing it pretty straight. But it is still fun to watch for everybody.
"I knew he'd be good," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who caught Palmer's last throw, a 30-yard bomb, for a touchdown. "But I didn't know he'd have the little things down like, there's the coverage and boom, he gets rid of it. There's no hesitation. If he doesn't play this year, let him chill. If he has to play, he will. But just imagine him running a whole offense when he's ready to play. It's going to be crazy."
Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated it's crazy to think of any kind of quarterbacks change. Although Palmer may have shot past Shane Matthews into the No. 2 role, Kitna remains his No. 1 for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Broncos. And Palmer agrees.
"The answer is I ain't ready yet," Palmer said. " It's going to be a way aways. I'm definitely not ready to do what Jon can do and to make the plays he makes."
Kitna made enough plays to get the Bengals into the red zone three times in the first half, but all the drives ended in field goals. Lewis had wanted to get Palmer work against the Lions' first team with his first team, but he ran out of time in the first half in order to get Kitna some rhythm in an offense that appeared out of sync at times, particularly in the running game.
Palmer opened the second half behind the backup offensive line with a 10-play, 77-yard drive in which he hit five different receivers for 45 yards. It started with a three-yard swing pass to running back Rudi Johnson and ended with a two-yard flip to rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson for the touchdown. In between, he floated a 29-yard pass down his left sideline to wide receiver Danny Farmer.
"He just looks so comfortable back there," Farmer said. "It's unbelievable. He just looks real poised and calm. (The pass) was just Cover Two (zone) and I'm supposed to sit in the hole between the corner and the safety. We usually don't throw that because it's a tight throw, but (the coverage) was soft and he threw it right in there."
After going No. 1 in the draft and winning the Heisman Trophy, Palmer is hardly impressed.
"My job was easy," Palmer said. "I had an opportunity to watch Jon and follow his lead, and get a chance to see what the defense is doing, what kind of coverages we're getting, the chance to get a feel for the game. You get the chance to use the balls when the grease has been taken off. It's a lot easier when you go out there after a quarterback has been in there and you see the looks and you can make the reads (along with him). You're also going against the third- and fourth-string guys. It's a lot easier to be the backup than the starter."
But not when you hobbled through your only practice of the week on Wednesday morning and didn't get cleared to play until just about two hours before game time. He partially tore connective tissue on the bottom of his right foot near the heal in Sunday's pre-season opener, and the pain was so bad that as of late Thursday he was limping around the Georgetown College campus.
But he was able to plant hard enough on the foot to throw a sweet over-the-shoulder ball down the right sideline to Houshmandzadeh for the 30-yard touchdown on a streak pattern.
"I was pretty close to not playing," Palmer said. (Bengals head trainer) Paul Sparling and his staff did a great job getting me ready to play. Three or four days ago I couldn't put any pressure on it, but tonight I was able to put all of my weight on it. I had a ton of treatment before the game and was ready to roll."
Palmer said he went on the field Saturday to show the trainers he could do the necessary footwork and they gave him the go. That turned out to be the first time he had ever been down on the field even though he had signed a seven-year, $49 million deal in this building two days before the draft back in April.
"It's a gorgeous stadium and I'm going to enjoy playing in it," Palmer said. "I can't wait until there are a bunch of people in there and the place is rocking. I'm going to have fun playing here."