Posted: 5:40 a.m.
Carson Palmer caught himself musing about some of the vagaries of pro sports Wednesday.
About missing players and injuries and all the what-might-have-beens of that 2005 draft class.
"It's part of the game; it's part of the NFL," said Palmer after a voluntary practice he directed the offense without several key players.
But he also could have been talking about the defense. Every top defensive player was there, but they were scrambling around trying to learn Mike Zimmer's new defense. The old one had become another casualty of another NFL reality: Losing translates to changes.
"Chuck was a great coach, no doubt," said safety Chinedum Ndukwe of departed defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan. "But they have different styles. Chuck was an overseer. Zimmer is really into the details ... it's something we need."
But not simple yet.
"Starting off, it's not less complicated," said Dhani Jones, suddenly the leader by age (30) and position (middle linebacker). "When you go through the process and understand the ins and outs and understand how things go together and how things (match), then it gets easier. I can see how it goes together and that it will be more simple."
Jones is a Grade A example of the transitory nature of pro sports about which Palmer waxed poetic.
Last July he announced his signing with the Saints on NFL Network. A couple of weeks later he was cut and on the street. Less than a year later, after an appalling spate of injuries to the backers and the fall of Odell Thurman, he has been entrusted with the leadership role of a Bengals defense in transition.
Jones's solid play in dire straits last year (physical, aggressive), along with his experience at all three backer spots have become invaluable.
"Everything is wide open," said Zimmer, who hands out compliments as often as grenades. "One thing I will say is that I didn't know Dhani Jones from anybody when I came in here. He's done a really good job being a leader, communicating, telling guys where to line up. He takes charge out there. It's important, especially when you're installing a new defense ... when you've got one calm guy in there, it helps."
Zimmer, on the other hand, is not calm. He's Type A when it comes to technique and intolerance of mistakes and the players have noticed. Jones has already heard his bark. Even before voluntaries started, the defensive line veterans were getting the book on different ways Zimmer wanted fundamentals executed.
But Zimmer says there is new terminology to learn, different ways to play those same coverages, and different technique. The different technique may be the biggest adjustment the defense has to make.
"He's been coaching the coaches and now he's coaching the players," Lewis said. "He's very demanding. Every detail. Stance to footwork. From the guys in the front to the back. I think the guys got that feeling right away."
The players have noticed that he's spent as much time with the defensive line and linebackers as he has with the secondary, the position he coached in Dallas for six seasons before becoming the Cowboys coordinator.
"As a safety, I know what the defensive line and linebackers are doing because I'm standing there when he's explaining what their responsibilities are," Ndukwe said. "It's just a different style."
Defensive tackle John Thornton, working under his third coordinator in six seasons, likes the look of Zimmer. But it's too early to talk to philosophy.
Jones, with his 83 NFL starts, has seen it all. He's not sure if Zimmer's heavy individual involvement in each position group is part of his style or just the byproduct of a new scheme.
"When you're installing a new defense, you want to make sure all the ingredients go together so the dish can came out correctly," Jones said.
Bresnahan had the rep for going for broke in big situations. Boom or bust. Asked if Zimmer had the same philosophy, Jones said, "We'll find out in the first big situation."
Jones just may be Zimmer's kind of no-nonsense guy to put at middle backer, which has never been his primary spot. A griller instead of a chef. Zimmer often talks about his 2001 Dallas defense and how it rebounded from No. 19 in 2000 to No. 4 with a no-name cast that simply played hard and did what it was told.
Jones is relishing his newfound role as a reliable, selfless veteran on the field instead of making headlines as a Renaissance Man off it.
After five practices, he's already talking Zimmer's philosophy.
Which is why he's happy that everybody is here during the voluntaries. Much of Jones' Wednesday interview session dealt with the importance of learning not only what you have to do, but learning how the player next to you does it.
The one guy that isn't here is Thurman, who hasn't played since he had a Rookie of the Year-like performance in 2005. Word is that he hadn't been around the stadium very much learning that new defense once NFL commissioner Roger Goodell let him back on site in late January, but the Bengals are simply saying they have enough backers to move on without him.
And it's tough to ask these guys for a reaction to not having Thurman since one player that lined up with him in the starting lineup against the Steelers in the Wild Card game is still in the starting lineup: Thornton. Jones becomes the sixth starting middle linebacker since Thurman got suspended.
Another example of the fleeting nature of it all.
Of course, Palmer not only remembers Thurman but the other two guys drafted in that first day of 2005 in first-rounder David Pollack and third-rounder Chris Henry. All gone to injury and waivers.
Palmer has been continually asked if the absences of wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are going to hurt this year. More quietly, tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones haven't been here, either. Running back Rudi Johnson, not here Wednesday, had been on the field last week.
"You hope a guy like Chad, you hope a guy like T.J. would be here helping guys out. It would make the team better that way," Palmer said. "But they have to handle their own business as well. And also the rookies need to figure out how they fit in ... you can't duplicate those two guys.
"These practices are important. It's not like we were 20-0 last year and we don't have much to work on. We've got a lot to work on. But this is the NFL. This is professional sports. Everybody has contract issues and negotiation issues. Chad took a lot of the heat for guys holding out. There's a lot of guys holding out. There's a lot of guys saying they're not going to show up. It's part of the game. It's part of the NFL and it's a part of sports. You just have to deal with it. You just got to get the young guys to figure things out."
And Palmer believes his team his young and kind of looking at a new day. Certainly on defense. And while Palmer has all his key players back on offense from '05, even he can see the new guys creeping in. The backup wide receivers are rookies. Tackles Stacy Andrews and Andrew Whitworth have played a lot of snaps since '05.
The releases of Thurman and Henry also mean the loss of six arrests and four NFL suspensions. Palmer thinks it means a new direction.
"I think Chris' situation was different than Odell's," Palmer said. "Chris got (arrested) and was gone the next day. With Odell, it was more of a numbers situation. The linebackers are here working out. Regardless of Odell's family situation, it was just a numbers game. They're going to go with (Keith) Rivers and the young guys."
Palmer never thought the spate of arrests in '06 was "a big burden" for the team.
"We got used to it, being in the news and showed in a negative light," Palmer said. "It happens on every team. For whatever reason, the Bengals were kind of shown to have the most problems and the most issues. But like I said, just like contract negotiations and holdouts and all that, it's part of this league. It's sad, but it's part of this league and professional sports."
Which is why it's another May and the Bengals are working with their ninth starting middle linebacker and third D-coordinator in six years.