Former teammates Ryan Fitzpatrick (left) and Michael Johnson chat during Bengals Training Camp in 2008. (AP photo)
When Ryan Fitzpatrick backed up Carson Palmer in 2007 and then Palmer's brother Jordan arrived a year later, the Bengals quarterbacks led the league in pranks. They pranked everyone including themselves, like the day Fitzpatrick dressed up like wide receiver Chad Ochocinco at a Friday practice, complete with an orange body suit when he lost the bucket drill.
The ultimate prank, of course, would be if the backup quarterback came back and beat the starter and Fitzpatrick gets that rare opportunity Sunday when he brings his Bills to Paul Brown Stadium for Sunday's 1 p.m. game.
"No, it's not just another game to me," Fitzpatrick mused over the phone Wednesday night from Buffalo. "It's not just because I'm playing against Carson, but it's all the people there. Players, coaches, people in the organization. It's a weird feeling. It was weird when I was on the field against them in the preseason. "
Then again, maybe Carson Palmer has already worked the ultimate prank by taking Fitzpatrick's advice and urging the Bengals to sign Fitzpatrick's biggest weapon from last season, wide receiver Terrell Owens. In nine games with Palmer and the Bengals, Owens has already passed the numbers he had last season in 16 games with the Bills on 59 catches (55), 834 yards (829), and seven touchdowns (five).
"I hope he doesn't have that big of a game," Fitzpatrick said. "I told you he could still run by people."
Fitzpatrick is treading lightly around the guys he calls "the Palmer boys," who are still his good friends. When the Bengals traveled to Buffalo in the preseason, Jordan brought Fitzpatrick a shirt from their favorite lunch place in Fort Thomas, Ky., "The Cobblestone Café," and then all three went to dinner. But since he has pulled plenty himself, Fitzpatrick knows their pranks are quick and deadly.
"Who knows what they have planned?" Fitzpatrick asked.
They have been known to have odd bets that involve getting an opposing quarterback in some kind of awkward moment before or after a game that can be captured on camera. All Fitzpatrick knows is they'll meet for dinner Saturday night and that Carson Palmer has already been ripping his beard via texts.
"He had that beard when he was here for a little while, too," Palmer said. "You just didn't notice it when he was the backup. When he was starting, he shaved it up and cleaned it up a little bit. I still recognize Ryno."
It looks like a Bengals quarterback has had only two chances to beat the man he backed up in Cincinnati and they are 1-1, and it has never happened at home. Jack Thompson lost his bid to beat Ken Anderson even though he threw for 316 yards and Anderson had just 168 in the Bengals 23-17 win in Tampa in 1983. And 17 years ago to the day Palmer and Fitzpatrick meet, Boomer Esiason beat David Klingler in a 17-12 grind job in the Meadowlands in which Esiason led the Jets to a win even though he didn't throw for a touchdown and Klinger out-yarded him, 196-192. But Klingler threw two interceptions and Esiason didn't have any.
Different eras, different circumstances. Klingler, the sixth pick in the draft, replaced Esiason as the franchise quarterback. Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round pick and the first Harvard quarterback to throw an NFL pass, came to Cincinnati via trade to back up the No. 1 pick in the draft and was a stopgap who served the franchise well in his 12 starts in 2008 that Palmer missed with an injured elbow.
Forget T.O., the Bengals are hoping they won't be a victim of what Fitzpatrick did in '08, when he rallied them from an 0-8 start to a 4-3-1 finish.
Now the Bills are coming off breaking their 0-8 start against the Lions last week and Fitzpatrick's numbers aren't far off of those of the franchise QB. But the big difference is that his pass offense is ranked 28th while Palmer's is No. 8 in the NFL.
Still, in seven starts Fitzpatrick is showing off his iPad brain, gym-rat tenacity, and a penchant for coming up with Elias Stat games. His career-best 372 passing yards came against the dangerous Ravens on his way to a passer rating of 85.5 with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions and 6.55 yards per throw. That's compared to the eight touchdowns and 5.1 yards per throw he had in his 12 Bengals starts in '08. The Bills throw it a lot more than the '08 Bengals. Those Bengals ran it 420 times compared to Fitzpatrick's 372 passes while this year Fitzpatrick has thrown it 252 times and the Bills have run it 229.
In nine starts Palmer has an 83 rating with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for 6.65 per throw. Hard to believe for Fitzpatrick, but he comes into a PBS where Palmer has been booed off the field in the last month during a week reporters are blogging in Buffalo with theories that the Bengals will take a quarterback with the top pick if they end up beating out the Bills for the worst record.
"Carson is everything you want in a quarterback," Fitzpatrick said. "Physically, he's off the charts. Arm, size, he's got intelligence and he's got the short memory if there is a miscommunication and there is an interception. He's got a lot of confidence."
That has been tested severely in a season Palmer has thrown 11 interceptions, just two fewer than what he had all last year. And his struggles on third down are dwarfed by how good Fitzpatrick has been. Fitzpatrick is second in the league with a 110 rating on five touchdowns and one interception on third down. Palmer is 26th with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
If you're looking for reasons, look no farther than chemistry. In the wake of Palmer's three interceptions in Indianapolis that could be traced to the mistakes of the receivers, chemistry was a hot topic Wednesday. Fitzpatrick's mix with his receivers is going to be tested with his No. 2, Roscoe Parrish, injured and out. Like Parrish and third-year man Steve Johnson, second in the AFC and one ahead of Bengals rookie receiver Jordan Shipley with 16 third-down catches, Fitzpatrick worked his way up the depth chart and they did it together.
"It's really important on third down when you've got to know where guys are going quickly," Fitzpatrick said. "When I got to Buffalo last offseason, I was throwing with Roscoe and Stevie on a daily basis and that helped. We had a lot of practice time together and I know that you guys have the rookies there with Shipley and (Jermaine) Gresham, plus T.O. just got there. It's going to be an issue with us going forward because Roscoe is such a big loss. We've got two rookies in Donald Jones and David Nelson, who are good players, but we're going to have to develop chemistry with them."
Palmer didn't blink twice talking about the problems at his Wednesday news conference, particularly on third down.
"Sometimes you get it because you're with guys for a long time, and sometimes you don't, because guys sign late in the year because of an injury, or in Terrell's case the first couple days of training camp," said Palmer of chemistry. "Or they're rookies and it's their first year. So it's definitely something that is great to have and it's something that definitely can improve your passing game and obviously help you on third down, but sometimes you just don't get it, and that's the luck of the draw.
"The chemistry's absolutely been off. The crazy thing about that is sometimes that gets covered up by somebody making a play here or just winning. But when you're losing and you're not making your fair share of those plays, it gets exploited and it comes uncovered. But a lot of teams deal with that, other than the teams that are with each other for a long amount of time and have reps and OTAs and training camp and previous seasons. A lot of that stuff kind of just gets covered up over time and you don't really realize it or notice it."
Well, it's getting noticed now. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco hasn't been at OTAs the last three years. The year Fitzpatrick ended up being the starter, both starting receivers, The Ocho and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, bowed out because of their contracts. Asked after practice if that has hurt, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski wasn't ready to pronounce it as a major catastrophe, but he also said, "It doesn't help."
"Sometimes you're with a group for X-amount of years and you have that chemistry. Sometimes you're not afforded those luxuries, getting a guy late in free agency, of getting a guy late into training camp because he signed his rookie deal late, or whatever it may be," Palmer said. "There are a number of factors. Injuries are another huge factor in that. So absolutely it's very important and in our case, obviously there have been a number of situations where that chemistry is not there, where we've just been on different pages. One guy zigged and the other guy thought he was going to zag, however you want to say it. That's been a definitely Achilles heel for us and something that has definitely slowed us down."
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick has rolled along with Parrish, Steve Johnson and the always dangerous Lee Evans. The Bills haven't exactly lit it up Elias with their overall numbers at No. 28 in offense, but they can hurt you deep.
"Ryan's done a good job of getting the ball out of his hand; he's pretty quick with the football," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "When it's not there, he'll do something we're pretty familiar with, and that's run and try to extend the series by making some first downs. He's played well on third downs for them, and he's getting the ball in and out quickly and doing the right things."
But Fitzpatrick knows that 1-8 is 1-8.
"I have to play better, no question about that," Fitzpatrick said. "I like where our offense is going and we'd been so close. I'm just really hoping that win over Detroit gets us over the hump and gives us confidence that we can go out and win."
Fitzpatrick would have loved the deft way Carson Palmer handled the questions about his receivers Wednesday, particularly his defense of the way Owens approached the third interception in Indianapolis last Sunday. Palmer sounded more like a senior senator than the senior that won the Heisman. Fitzpatrick had good training before he was handed Owens.
"I always thought that was one of his biggest strengths, how he managed personalities," Fitzpatrick said of Palmer. "I think that's something I took from him, but I also think I drew on my own experiences, working with guys like Chad and T.J. But Carson has a great way of working in the meetings and getting his point across and always communicating."
Fitzpatrick wanted to make sure to be remembered to all of Bengaldom, but he is a bit relieved he doesn't have to be in Friday's bucket drill. That's the throwing contest the Bengals quarterbacks do each week, and the loser ends up having to do something embarrassing.
He just hope he plays the ultimate prank on Sunday if he throws it in the bucket and beats the Bengals.