Posted: 11:25 p.m.
The Bengals have never had a losing season strapped to Carson Palmer's back and the 1-4 start has exposed a competitive streak longer than his spiral.
While Palmer's anger has flashed the last two weeks, one of the countless Bengaldom debates is if his desire to get his team back in the AFC North race has affected his play.
In fact, he again apologized at his weekly news conference for any public displays of insurrection and admitted, "I think everybody's a little bit on edge around here."
"To be honest with you, I don't think he's struggling," said tight end Reggie Kelly after Wednesday's practice. "He's throwing the ball just as well and for a lot of yards. Some of it's the situations we're in. He's a real competitive guy that is trying to make big plays. You can't hold that against a guy trying to do whatever he can to help us win."
But Palmer's recent numbers aren't the usually impeccable and efficient. After he strafed the Browns on six touchdown passes in the second game of the season, that finished a stretch of 38 games in which he failed to break an 80 passer rating just six times.
But in the last three games he's thrown just four touchdowns to six interceptions and has been under an 80 rating in all three, a skein that hasn't happened since the Nos. 2-5 starts of his career.
The man who finished sixth in NFL passer rating last season ahead of Tom Brady and Phillip Rivers is 12th behind Derek Anderson. Matt Schaub and, yes, Jon Kitna.
The offensive categories that are way below what the boards want are rushing yards per game (28th in the NFL), rushing average (24), third-down conversions (tied for 28th) and interceptions (20).
Palmer is on pace to throw a career-high 38 touchdown passes, but also a career-high 26 interceptions. Only Tony Romo and Drew Brees with nine picks have thrown more than Palmer's eight, a number he didn't reach until Game 11 last season and Game 13 in 2005.
One NFL scout who works outside the division said Palmer simply doesn't look comfortable and that it has nothing to do with mechanics or his knee injury. You're just talking about a guy who has thrown to four different No. 3 receivers (this Sunday it is Glenn Holt's turn), worked with 10 different offensive lines, and hasn't had his workhorse back for two games.
"He's had a lot of different guys in his huddle," Whitworth said. "Different linemen block different ways. Levi is a guy as a pass protector who takes speed rushers and makes a guy go around him. I'm a power guy. Each blocker has a different style and the pocket can be different."
Palmer, of course, the modern day stoic, doesn't mention all that.
"Your whole game plan is affected when you're missing guys like that. But I've said this a number of times: It doesn't matter who our third receiver is, we've got guys," he said. "You think about a guy like Glenn Holt and all he's done is try to make plays and make big plays. You think back to the (Cleveland) game, when he made a couple of big catches, a big touchdown catch."
Palmer admits he has thrown it into places he doesn't usually try and has made some uncharacteristic bad decisions. By whiffing on 17 of 18 third down tries in the past two games in which the Bengals have led for less than seven minutes and had the ball for less than 50 minutes, its almost no decision.
" A couple times it's been bad decisions. A couple times you're down late in the game, like against New England, and you're just trying to make something happen," Palmer said. "What you do with the last interception against New England is throw it away, but throwing the ball away doesn't give you an opportunity to make a first down in that situation when you need a score."
Of the 69 second-half snaps the Bengals have run the past two weeks, 53 have been passes.
And still, he had only two of those picked.
"Yeah, I've thrown a couple balls I might not have in another situation," Palmer said. "You think back to years past in different situations in games, in certain situations you need to take chances and try to squeeze balls into certain spots. When they're complete, they're great. When they're incomplete or they're interceptions, you look back and think, 'I shouldn't have thrown it.'
"But I do put a lot of pressure on myself and I have a lot of high expectations on myself. When a guy goes down, I need to step up my game, Chad needs to step up his game, T.J. needs to step up his game. When one part of the puzzle kind of falls off, everybody else needs to bring it together and make sure they're that much better on the next play or make sure they know exactly what's going on and what plays can be made in a certain play, because you're lacking Chris Henry or you're lacking a certain guy at a certain position."
If wide receivers Chad Johnson (on pace for a near NFL-record of 1,843 yards) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (on pace for an NFL-record 150 catches) had numbers like that in baseball, the Bengals would be leading the National League Central by 10 games on Memorial Day.
But it's football and "Carson is only as good as the people around him," Johnson said. "It's a team game. Once we get going and start hitting on all cylinders, these numbers will look like they're supposed to and I guarantee by the end of the year those numbers will be back where they should."
Palmer and Johnson. Johnson and Palmer. Their relationship should be in the tabloids. Their chemistry has been questioned more than the paternity of Anna Nicole's baby.
"He's always distraught after an interception," Johnson said. "He snaps his helmet like this and says, 'Bleep.' He does it in practice, too. He cusses me out all the time. Just like me. We're the same way."
Johnson has blamed himself for two of the interceptions but neither shed any light on the curious second and last interception in Kansas City over the middle in which some said Johnson cut the route short and in which Palmer visibly showed anger so neatly caught by the TV cameras that they ran more reruns than Nick at Nite.
"I don't remember the play," Johnson said. "We haven't seen it on film yet."
Palmer must have reminded him.
"I'm not going to get into specifics," Palmer said. "We talked about it, we covered it, we'll improve on it and it won't happen again."
Johnson is a bit amused by the reactions to his flashes of anger compared to Palmer's.
"What if he throws a bad ball and I do the same thing?" he asked. "I'll get in trouble. There it is: "I'll be selfish. I hate that, man."
But he still insists his relationship with Palmer is solid enough to call him "The Golden Boy" and "Snowflake," and they're trying to figure out why they're struggling to hook up at times. Johnson says he's still getting double-teamed just like he was when Palmer took over in 2004.
"That's a gimmie," he said. "But I'm creating space and I'm consistently beating doubles like I always have. It's just we're not on the page we need to be on."
Palmer is used to hearing that.
"T.J. and Chad don't understand why the ball isn't thrown to them every single play, because they think they're open every single play, because in their minds they can't be covered," Palmer said. "Which is exactly what you want being a quarterback. You don't want a guy who says, 'I don't think I can get open on this.' "
Johnson, second in NFL receiving yardage, says he's not pressing ("I don't have anything to press about") and offers, "Its a little thing here and little thing there. We can't complete it. But that's what we have practice for. It's very early. We will get on rhythm to what everybody is used to seeing. You're not used to seeing him and I off like this. It happens to every quarterback and receiver. Our job is to fix it and we'll fix it out there in practice."