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More than a letter

Posted: 6:35 a.m.



Even before the announcement, the gag is John Thornton sometimes tears off a piece of white tape, twists it into a "C" for captain, sticks it on his jersey, and then goes out to practice.

"The offensive linemen try to tear it off and guys give me a hard time," Thornton said this week as he reflected on his election as defensive captain. "For awhile they were telling me it stands for 'Company Man.' "

But the fact, is it's never been a joke for Thornton. In fact, when he signed on as a Bengal in the first weeks of the Marvin Lewis administration in 2003, he felt he was going in as a leader. That it fits his personality. "C" could also stand for his comfort with the role.

So no one is more qualified to analyze the emergence of his offensive counterpart, Carson Palmer, from quiet rookie to assured veteran.

"I was kind of shocked that I won with support like that from both sides of the ball," said Thornton, who has started every game but one at defensive tackle as a Bengal. "I was thinking B. Rob (Bryan Robinson) or Landon (Johnson).

"But I could see how Carson would be picked. People respect him. He interacts with everybody, not just the receivers and the offensive like. You see him playing cards with (cornerback) Keiwan Ratliff. It's how he carries himself in the locker room. He is our best player."

Palmer and Thornton share the same agent (David Dunn) and Thornton has been known to engage Palmer in conversations about cell phones and other gadgets that obsess Thornton.

"But we don't break bread every night. Offense and defense don't spend much time together during the day," Thornton said.

But they do share a blast of pride and responsibility from what Palmer calls a vote of their peers. A two-time Pro Bowler and perennial Player of the Week winner, Palmer says there is no bigger honor.



At 27 and his fifth season in the league, he is becoming more than an elite quarterback. Lewis' vote for season-long captains, a response to commissioner Roger Goodell's initiative to cultivate leadership, confirms what has been going on behind the scenes the last couple of years.

It was the fuming Thornton in the pall of the Paul Brown Stadium locker room 18 months ago that decried the mental "implosion" that had just taken place on the field in the Wild Card game against the Steelers.

He feels like this is a different team with different leadership.

"That seems like such a long time ago," Thornton said. "Each team is different. Each year is different. I'm excited about this one. I just think we were at a point where so much happened so fast. All of a sudden getting that home playoff game and then Carson getting hurt. We've certainly been through a lot."

Everyone is two seasons older. Especially Palmer, now not only a playoff veteran, but rehab veteran. As wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh says, Palmer's position is a natural one for captain.

"That's what a quarterback does," Houshmandzadeh said. "He's growing into that role more and more each year. He talks a little more and says a little more. It's natural for a quarterback. He's been doing it his whole life.

"He might say something to you, but if he doesn't want to offend you, he won't do it in front of others. He's done that before. That's what quarterbacks do. The good quarterbacks. The better you play, the more natural leader you're going to be. If you're not playing well, how are you going to say something to somebody? ... I don't think it matters he was voted captain because he'll lead the team anyway."

Lewis has always felt Palmer's strength as a leader comes from his natural disposition as the down-to-earth-guy in the next locker. Palmer always admired the way USC teammate Troy Polamalu went about his captaincy. He remembers Polamalu talking just twice during practice in his career.

"His way of leading was just by being a team guy," Palmer said. "Never being selfish. Showing everybody this is how you work, this is how you practice. This is how you prepare, and if you don't step up to his level and compete and practice at his level, he's going to say something about it."

On the scale of rah-rah guys, Palmer ranks somewhere around 0.0. And with good reason. He's caught that act before.

"Cheerleaders and guys that are rah-rah aren't always the best leaders. Their bark is louder than their bite," he said. "There are different ways to do it. I think I still need to keep improving and keep working in the direction of being more than a leader. I still feel I have a lot of room to grow in that area. It's a good start."

Thornton knows that Palmer studied under a quarterback that is more verbal in his role. You can still hear Jon Kitna trying to strap the Lions on his back with his confident, bold words in the media.

"Kitna was more talkative, he'd talk in front of the team," Thornton said. "That's not Carson's personality. He's not that way. You know he's going to say the politically correct thing (publicly), but that he's also going to say what he thinks in here."

Palmer used to be a predictable-ho-hum-let's-go-get-the-next-one guy when it came to a quote. But in the last year or two, he hasn't been afraid to send a message to his mates via a media memo. Note his outrage back in January following another arrest.

"Some things around here get over talked (too much)," Palmer said. "Sometimes there are things that don't need to be said. But then there are often times where somebody needs to step in and say something. That's your role as quarterback and captain and leader of the team."

Palmer wants to get to a point where players, particularly the young guys, aren't afraid to come to him.

"There's no such thing as a stupid question," Palmer said. "Maybe a guy doesn't want to go to a coach to ask something because, 'In the back of his mind, is he going to wonder about me? Does he trust me?' There are different ways to portray leadership."

But he won't do it like Kitna, Polamalu or the greatest Bengal leader of them all, Boomer Esiason.

"I don't try to compare myself or say, 'What would this guy do?' " he said. "Just be yourself."

Which is what Thornton is doing. With his outgoing personality, nine years in the game that includes a Super Bowl and solid status in the community, Thornton is as natural as Palmer. But he hasn't been around long enough to downplay how his teammates view him.

"It's a thrill and an honor that guys think enough of the way I go about my job," he said. "I think that's what it's all about. They see things. They see how you approach things. It's a big responsibility."

Thornton isn't going to change. Just adjust.

"Maybe get in there a little earlier in the day, and do some more organizing of defensive dinners, team dinners. Reaching out a little more."

And for a gag, he'll keep the tape close by even though he'll get an NFL patch on gameday.

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