Posted: 10 a.m.
First on Saturday, Bob Johnson is coaching the West quarterbacks in the Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.
"But I should be back in my hotel room just as 'The Game' is starting," he said this week.
"The Game" is as All-American as that one. Saturday's frozen NFL playoff game in Paul Brown Stadium pitting two southern California quarterbacks. Carson Palmer has quarterbacked two division titles, thrown 88 touchdown passes, won 42 games, and been a Pro Bowl MVP in his six seasons as a starter, and standing between him and his first playoff victory is his old high school ball boy.
The Jets' Mark Sanchez is in his rookie season, but he's spent a lifetime looking up to Palmer. Johnson privately tutored them both, starting when each was in seventh grade. On Saturday, he's just going to sit back.
"And just enjoy it. No, not pulling for anyone. Just watch. It really is a thrill," Johnson says. "Both guys can make all the throws. They're built a little differently, and maybe have a little different style, but they can both make all the throws."
Jordan Palmer, Carson's brother and Bengals No. 3 quarterback, is close to Sanchez. He was only a few years ahead of him at Mission Viejo High School. When Johnson got back into coaching, Jordan transferred from Carson's school, Santa Margarita, after his sophomore year. Sanchez did, too, a couple of years later.
"Good dude," Jordan Palmer says. "He's got a great line. He always says it to kids. 'If you really love playing quarterback, you'll do anything to protect it.' He's a gym rat. Besides his family, football is the most important thing to him. He thinks about football all day every day for 365 days a year."
Carson Palmer may have more things on his mind these days. He's two weeks removed from his 30th birthday. His twins turn one in a few weeks. But there is no question that winning the Super Bowl is right there.
It's why he selflessly ditched the Pro Bowl throwing stats this season to nurse a revamped offensive line and new receiving corps to 10 wins and caretakered his team to a surprising AFC North title that came courtesy of the run and defense. Chad Ochocinco bought into it? What if the quarterback hadn't bought into it?
"He's not an ego guy," Jordan says. "If he was a big ego guy and needed to throw the ball for lots of yards, that wouldn't have had success this year. The main thing is winning for him. If he had gone to Pittsburgh, he wouldn't have thrown for all those yards the last couple of years and he'd be known as a guy who was clutch. But he started off, he had Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, so he threw for a lot of yards. Whatever it takes to win."
Johnson doesn't really know Palmer and Sanchez any more as quarterbacks. He knows them more as his friends, maybe even more like his sons. His own son, Rob, played quarterback at USC long before Carson Palmer and Sanchez. They don't talk fundamentals as much anymore as they do family, but when Carson unleashed his rehabbed elbow for the first time this year he happened to do it in front of Johnson at Mission Viejo.
"Mark is 6-2 and throws on the run a little bit more," Johnson says. "Carson is the prototype. He's 6-5, likes to stand in the pocket. I know he's gotten out of the pocket a little more this year, but he likes to stay in the pocket and, really so does Mark. Both have the big arms."
Out of all the guys that Sanchez could have gone against in his first playoff game and it had to be this guy. When Sanchez talked to the Cincinnati media last week before the game in The Meadowlands, Palmer sounded more like a big brother than a rival.
"He always has little bits of wisdom for me, things he's seen as a pro and college player, that could possibly help me," Sanchez said. "The first thing that comes out of Carson is, 'How's your family, how's your dad, how's your brother, Brandon?' because he played with Brandon in high school at Santa Margarita. He's just a really selfless guy, a great person."
But you can believe Palmer sees Sanchez as a rival Saturday. Since he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, Palmer has watched several quarterbacks selected after him win a playoff game. He certainly doesn't want the ballboy to join the list of Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco.
"It not frustrating that it's the draft year. It's frustrating that other guys are doing it," Carson Palmer says. Whether it's a rookie or Brett Favre."
He knows there is only one true way to be anointed an elite quarterback: Winning in the playoffs.
"If we win a Super Bowl," he says of the playoffs. "It's about how you're respected, how you're thought of, how you're looked at."
Sanchez made the playoffs in his first year as a starter. Another thing Palmer can tell him is it's not always going to be that easy. In 2006 he had the Bengals one win away from going back to the postseason and they lost the last three games. In 2007 the Bengals got beat in the second game even though Palmer threw six touchdown passes and they never recovered. Last year he suffered an injury to his throwing elbow that wiped out 12 games.
And, like an assassination or declaration of war, everyone knows where they were in Bengaldom when Palmer suffered a season-ending knee injury on his first and only playoff pass. They probably think of it more than he does. There is no thirtysomething bitterness.
"It was crazy," he admits. "It was our first playoff game and we were legit and we lost to the team that won the whole thing and we had beaten them. That wasn't part of the plan. It wasn't meant to be. It wasn't part of God's plan. It wasn't going to be our year. My year. The good thing is I got another opportunity to do it."
But there have always been the comebacks. The year after the knee injury, Palmer was the Pro Bowl MVP. The year after the elbow, the Bengals won the AFC North. They won it because six times this season Palmer took the ball on what looked to be their last chance to pull out a win and got the go-ahead points.
Jordan Palmer says he's never seen his brother waver.
"He goes from year to year. I would imagine that's the way the elite guys like him do it," Jordan says. "Each year is so different. The only thing he's thinking about is winning Saturday because we know if we can win, we're thinking we can go on a run."
Bob Johnson talks about that even temperament. It's the same one he's had since he was in the seventh grade.
"He showed up with his dad and he was 6-2," Johnson says. "He had played tackle the year before and he was tall and gawky, but a great kid. Always the same. Quiet. The whole family is pretty much that way. Bill, his dad. Jordan is the businessman."
But on Saturday, the business is the playoffs. The Pro Bowler vs. The Ball Boy.
"It doesn't matter," Carson Palmer says. "Look at Roethlisberger. He threw four passes in a game and they won a Super Bowl. Whatever it takes."
On Saturday night, he hopes Sanchez is saying, "Look at Carson."