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Last game hangs with Palmer

Carson Palmer

The twins are now about a year old and they are the best offseason regimen Carson Palmer has ever had.

"They're not talking yet but they're walking," he says from California. "One goes one way and the other one goes the other way. They're making me burn the calories, that's for sure."

The gang will all be here next week as the Bengals begin their offseason workouts and at age 30 and after a season he engineered more improbable endings than the Electoral College, Palmer remains very much the heart and soul of a franchise seeking back-to-back division titles.

If you don't think so, just ask Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis. There is no Donovan McNabb question in Cincinnati. The biggest question here is if they've got enough around Palmer.

"We've got some poise. We've been to the playoffs. We've done it before. We're more mature now," Palmer says. "The thing we have to do now is win the games we're supposed to win. Win the games where we're the better team. We can't lose to Oakland. I'm excited. I don't think it's a question of talent. It's being professional and having the right guys. Yeah, this may be the best mix of that. We've got a lot of good guys, but it's real early. We haven't even started workouts yet. We've got a long way to go."

Palmer counts the Wild Card loss to the Jets as one of those. Just like his only other playoff game. That loss against the Steelers ended for him after two snaps because of the knee injury, but the 24-14 loss to New York back on Jan. 9 that displayed his rare inaccuracy seems to gnaw at him even more.

"It still hurts. I'm still not over it. I think about it every day," Palmer says. "It had to be one of the most heartbreaking losses we've ever had. Just because of the expectations. The Jets just barely got in and we had won the division. You felt a little bit better about it when they went to San Diego and won. They were better than people thought. But it was still hard to watch. It was a just a weird last two games (against the Jets). We went up there and played them in that cold weather and came back and played them six days later. It was just weird."

Palmer says he wakes up and he thinks about '09. He has to, he says, because '10 hasn't started yet.

"You think about the big games you could have won, like in San Diego," he says. "You think about everything really. The times we came together as a team, the OTAs, road trips. You think about it all."

There is a lot to think about. Palmer led his team to its first division sweep with an almost Ripley's Believe It or Not seven last-drive scores that either won the game or tied it. But everyone remembers the high passes in the playoff game.

Earlier this week at the NFL meetings, ESPN's Ron Jaworski speculated that Palmer got a tired arm late in the year at the end of a season he came back from an elbow injury that virtually wiped out all of 2008.

"He's still got the mechanics and all that," Jaworski said. "He just didn't look the same and I'm hoping he gets back to where he was."

Palmer disputes it and says, "I was rested and healed up and ready to go for the last four weeks of the playoffs." The one thing he does say is that he cut back on his training before coming to Cincinnati. Last year he felt like he had peaked in May and June.

"That was because I was coming back from the elbow injury and I was throwing every day and rehabbing like crazy in January and February. It was just off of what happened in '08," Palmer says. "Now I've pulled it back a little bit so I can peak later in the year."

The surgery on his non-throwing thumb for torn ligaments should help that out. He's still throwing, but he's also rehabbing the thumb five days a week and he calls it 70 percent. He says with a couple of months to go before the Bengals get on the field, he should be able to take the first snap of OTAs in May.  

But he doesn't deny that the passing game also needs rehab. While he thinks the signing of wide receiver Antonio Bryant gives offense some toughness and some vertical game, he's also eying the middle of the field where wide receiver T.J.  Houshmandzadeh used to be so much help to him. He says that's where the club needs young Chase Coffman to emerge at tight end with no presence like Houshmandzadeh available on third down and in the red zone even though Coffman has yet to play in an NFL game.

And Palmer also says he needs another pair of twins to start walking, the underachieving wide receivers taken high in the 2008 draft. Third-rounder Andre Caldwell showed flashes of brilliance as well as streaks of inconsistency while second-rounder Jerome Simpson has showed nothing because he's dressed for just eight games.   

"I have to improve; we all have to improve," Palmer says. "We need for Andre and Jerome to step up and produce. It was a tough year for Andre because he stared out playing outside, then he went back inside, and then back outside at the end of the year. I think if we can stay healthy and are able to keep guys in their same spots from the beginning of OTAs, we'll be OK.

"You know what you're going to get from Chad (Ochocinco). He's going to make big plays when he gets the chance. Bryant is a proven guy. Now we need some other guys to step up like T.J. did over the middle. Our division is so heavy with zone blitz, a lot of times that's where the big plays are. Our tight ends were supposed to do that last year, but they got hurt and hopefully Chase can be that guy."

One guy Palmer knows that can produce is his head coach. While a segment of fans has extended their tailgating into the offseason to solely grill Palmer, Brown and Lewis made it clear this week that Palmer is their man. Lewis talked at great lengths at the meetings about how much he consults Palmer and how he was the key figure in the Terrell Owens talks.

"Carson wants to win very badly. Carson will message me once a week about something, somehow, someway and wants to know what's going on," Lewis said. "He'll be back there on Monday ready to go and that's the good thing. He's invested in the football team. He and I walked across the street in 2003 and I told him he was going to be our pick and that he and I were going to be joined at the hip and he took that seriously. He knew what that meant. A lot of people would think that was idle conversation but he knew right then and there what that meant. He sees that. He wants to be a World Champion and win a Super Bowl ring.

"I value his opinion and he understands when things don't break his way. Sometimes the player doesn't see the whole picture. I try and involve him in that. He comes with me where you were right. Don't let that ever preclude you from coming to me. Sometimes I'm going to make a decision that you're not going to feel good about but don't let that preclude you from coming to me."

Palmer says he just assumes that Lewis and Brown are going to get together on a contract that keeps Lewis in Cincinnati beyond 2010. He says he's an outsider looking in at the contract talks, but an insider on everything else.

"From an outsider looking in, it seems like a great fit. As an insider, I know it's a great fit," Palmer says. "I know Marvin doesn't communicate to you guys, the media, but every head coach does that. That's out of the Belichick school. But he's been great with me about ideas and asking me things. But that's Marvin. He likes to get the offense's opinion. He's such a great defensive coach, he knows defense inside and out, and he likes to get the feel from quarterbacks and offensive coaches like Ken (Zampese) and Brat (Bob Bratkowski)."

Palmer and Lewis walked across the street together. But he's heard the pre-'03 stories.

"I wasn't here, but I guess there were some bad times," Palmer says. "Marvin has it rolling. We both came in from the ground up. They'll get it done. The Browns know how much he's meant to the team. I think we know he loves coaching the Bengals and his family seems comfortable here. I think it's a great fit."

Palmer seems to like his fit here, too. The defense and the locker room chemistry have him as excited as the twins. But he knows the offense has to become more productive and that his passing game is the X-factor.

"A long way to go," says Dad, who is now walking and talking about 2010. "But I'm excited."

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