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Fancy passing

Carson Palmer

Posted: 6:45 a.m.

MIAMI - The subject is quarterbacks in this 44th Super Bowl and three old-school guys who are in their 40s and beyond are blown away by what the new breed has produced in the passing game this season.

The Colts' Peyton Manning vs. the Saints' Drew Brees. The Surgeon vs. The Little Easy. They underline how the pass dominated the stats this NFL season. As Phil Simms, a Super Bowl MVP quarterback from back in the day observed Tuesday, "When Peyton Manning goes 30-for-36 for 450 yards, we take it for granted. It's hard to believe, but they're putting up Dan Marino numbers when he was the only guy doing it. It's fun to watch."

Simms, along with Marino and his other CBS broadcast partner working Sunday's game, former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, are the background music at this Super Bowl. They are classic '80s on Roger Goodell's satellite radio amid the new coffee house riding the benefits of more relaxed offensive rules and more protection for passers. They are also quick to say they believe that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer still physically belongs in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks as his team and philosophy change around him after a season he literally finished smack in the middle of the pack (16th) among NFL passers.

"I would take him as my quarterback," Esiason said.

But while Esiason has never thrown his son in the Bengals quarterback line under the bus (or in front of it, for that matter), he also challenged Palmer on Tuesday to play at the level set by the new wave. Esiason also openly wondered if his old team has gone too conservative even though it took the same running path to the Super Bowl here 21 years ago during his NFL MVP season.

Has he done this before? Esiason admitted Tuesday that he injured his shoulder the last month of that season and couldn't throw effectively down the field until the start of the next season.

It was an injury that either coincided or forced the emergence of rookie running back Ickey Woods, but Esiason thinks his team didn't have enough passing firepower to win the Super Bowl with 16 points and that's how he sees his 21st century descendants in stripes.

"For whatever reason, they took a left-hand turn and became the '89 Bengals and the '88 Bengals the second half of the season," Esiason said. "You won't win in this league doing that. You have to throw it."

The formula for the last decade of Super Bowl winners defies him. Since 2000, this will be only the third champion that has a passing game rated in the NFL's top 10. The more common stats are scoring defense, total defense and rushing offense.

But Manning and Brees have been so spectacular through the air in a season old dogs Brett Favre and Kurt Warner were almost as good that Palmer's 10 wins and division sweep seem to get lost. It also amplified his poor accuracy in the first half of the Wild Card loss to the Jets on the same weekend Warner outdueled the Packers' Aaron Rodgers in a memorable pass-fest.

But Simms isn't taking any points off Palmer.

"I love this one, too: 'Don't you think Tom Brady slipped this year?' " Simms said. "Get the ice pick and stick it in my ear. I don't have time for that. 

"Is he top three or top five? I don't know. The people that say (he's fallen behind) can only come to that conclusion by looking at the numbers. That's all. There's nothing that I saw in Carson Palmer that makes me think that his skills have gone down. The talent around him has changed and the philosophy has changed some, too. It's going to affect your numbers. The biggest (change) around him is the talent. His arm is fine. He moved around better than I've ever seen him move around. When he had the big numbers, he had the skill sets. Their receiving corps was the best in the NFL and that's not the case now."

When Esiason says "for whatever reasons" the Bengals tucked it and ran, every middle-schooler from Anderson to Ada knows why. The losses of Palmer's two most trusted receivers, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry, and a reshuffled offensive line that had four players in new spots.

"Injuries have hampered him and he plays for a franchise that, at best, is inconsistent," Esiason said. "They won their division going 6-0, but it's not a great passing team and we're in a passing league now and you have two teams that made it here by passing their way through the league. Maybe the Bengals are too old school. Maybe they've gone too far the other way."

But Esiason thinks Palmer still has elite skills to prosper with 2009's top passers if the Bengals open up the game for him when they get him some weapons.

"I would take him as my quarterback," Esiason said. "And I would demand him to be Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. Demand him to be Kurt Warner. I would demand him to be Aaron Rodgers, who has probably passed him on the food chain right now. And I would say, 'Listen, this is your team. You are the guy. We're only going to get to the Super Bowl if you get to that level.' "

Esiason knows that Palmer knows all that. And Marino thought it was Palmer's skills that were an overriding factor that got the Bengals 10 wins and a playoff berth. He also thinks Palmer looked comfortable in the pocket, although he'll have a hard time soothing the angst of Bengaldom.

"What else could you ask from a guy coming off injury, doesn't have the same weapons, and they still win?" Marino asked. "Big-time skills. He looks fine to me. You're always going to get nicked here and there and quarterbacks have to deal with that. I think it's more or less he didn't have the same playmakers or as many playmakers."

Palmer certainly does have the rules and the responsibility that trio didn't have back in the '80s. Marino joked that with the emphasis on illegal contact and pass interference, he would have thrown for "6,000 yards behind my back." He also thinks they are better protected, but with it comes more mental strain.

"The substitutions and there's a lot more exotic blitzing they have to deal with," Marino said. "The only time we really went no-huddle was in the two-minute (drill) and at the end of games when you had to come back if you were behind. The mental part of the game is tougher. Physically, it's easier to play than it was the way they protect the quarterback and you can only hit him certain places.

"The way they're throwing the ball so much, there's more emphasis on pass protection. You see guys playing longer. You see Peyton Manning hasn't missed a game since he came into the league. It just goes to show you that physically they are stronger, bigger and faster, but also it's not as tough on them."

It got Esiason to thinking about his days on the Bengals practice field when head coach Sam Wyche would begin the first day of Cleveland week declaring if the Bengals receivers couldn't beat the Browns cornerbacks, they weren't going to win. So Wyche would give the scout team defense two more defenders. They were linebackers and were told to simply grab the receivers and make sure they didn't get downfield into their routes.

Now, basically, a cornerback can't breathe on a receiver five yards downfield, never mind touch them.

"The way the rules are interpreted today and loosened up, the wide receivers are the best athletes on the field and you're asking (the cornerbacks) to change directions with them and they can't get their hands on them," Esiason said. "And every time there's a flag thrown on a third-down situation, or a defender is called for either holding or illegal contact, that's a turnover for the offense. When you have the receivers these two teams have and the quarterbacks they have and the accuracy which they throw the ball, it's everything geared toward this quarterback generation. I don't have an ax to grind, but Danny is right. They don't get hit like we used to get hit.

"And I can attest to that because I wasn't protected like Marino. 'Oooh, Dan Marino. I can't hit him.' Phil and I are out of the school of hard knocks."

Marino laughed.

"You just didn't know where to throw it," he told Esiason.

All kidding aside, it will be quarterbacks past and present throwing the ball and everything else Sunday.

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