Posted: 6:15 p.m.
The surest sign of a Cincinnati spring next to a Marty Brennaman call is a Carson Palmer ball.
And Palmer, the man who left Bengaldom back in January lower than a common denominator, vows to return Monday firing after a couple of months of taking up surfing, indulging in cheese enchiladas, and vetting what he called the most disappointing season of his life.
If there is one guy that can put the orange in a black picture, it is No. 9.
"I feel better. I'm in as good shape as I've been the last couple of years," Palmer said Thursday from southern California. "I still feel like we've got enough players in enough spots. Right now, we've got as good a shot as anybody else."
Palmer said back in January that his team needed to play with more discipline. So, as usual, he has started with himself and has been so wrapped up in his four-times-a-week workouts at two-and-a-half hours a pop that he's virtually shelved one of his passions: Golf.
"I've only been out three times," he said. "By the time you get to the gym, and get done with everything, you're just kind of spent. I haven't got the itch yet."
"I don't know what Chad's situation is," Palmer said. "I can see where T.J. is coming from. He came into camp in the best shape of his life and had the best year of his career. He can get one-on-one attention there, and that's nothing against (Bengals strength coaches) Chip Morton and Ray Oliver. They're working with 20 guys."
Palmer had no comment on Johnson's situation."I'm not throwing my hat into the ring on that one," he said. Or any elaboration on his comments the day after the season. When asked if he thought the same coaching staff could turn the team from being stale and Palmer said, "I don't think so."
"I said what I said," Palmer said Thursday, indicating he'd like to put it in the past. Then he does what he always does and turned the heat on himself by saying he can't take the fundamentals for granted.
After throwing a career-high 20 interceptions, Palmer's annual review of game film was particularly intense and he's got a notebook-full to show for it.
"A lot of notes, a lot of notes," he said. "I watched every game. My footwork. That's a big thing. Getting back to the basics. There's not a reason for getting away from it. You just take some things for granted or you get lazy or you don't focus as much."
For example, Palmer isn't pleased with the mechanics of his play-action passes or checkdown throws to the running backs. Like last season, when he came off a career-low 62.3 completion percentage in 2006, Palmer is looking to jack his '07 rate of 64.9 into the 70 range.
"You can tell by the reactions of the linebackers and safeties and there was no reaction at all," Palmer said of his play-action fakes. "I've got to carry it out the same way every time. Whether it's third-and-15 or third-and-two. I want to get the ball to the backs quicker on the checkdowns. Give them a better angle on the front shoulder. I can't wait to get back there working with Rudi (Johnson) and Kenny (Watson)."
Palmer doesn't mention the dropped passes or the inability to run the ball that inhibited his efforts. He also says, "We'll get better with whatever receivers are there."
He doesn't seem concerned that Houshmandzadeh, his favorite target from last season, won't be around. Living so close together in California, they end up throwing a lot. Even when Houshmandzadeh showed up sporadically in Cincinnati last spring.
"I know we hooked up out here (last) July and got some things done," Palmer said. "I'm looking forward to throwing with Chris (Henry) and we're in the same workout group. We've got talent here. We've just got to go to work Monday."
Palmer offers no apologies for his end-of-season frustration.
"You probably felt the same way. We all felt the same way. To be sitting home watching the playoffs, nobody wants that," he said. "I took about three weeks off and did what I wanted to do. The Mexican food out here is phenomenal. I put on a little weight. It gives you a little more incentive to get back into the gym. I feel ready to go."
Palmer didn't rest as long as he did after the '06 season, when the finale against the Steelers left him physically battered and he needed more time to recover as opposed to the '07 season that left him psychologically spent.
But he says the mind is cleared now and this time he not only went back into the gym at longer stretches for cardio, stretching, yoga, and Pilates, the California kid finally picked up surfing.
"It's not really surfing. It's more like paddling," Palmer said. "It's a great way to build up shoulder stability. You lie down on the board, flat on your stomach, and it's almost like you're swimming and you can feel it in the small muscles of your shoulders and back. The one thing I hate is 300-pound guys falling on my shoulder."
It beats putting a 9-iron in the water. Instead, Palmer drives down to the beach, puts a board in the ocean, heads down the coast to La Jolla, and turns around for nearly a two-mile workout.
He hopes he's coming back to a team that is afloat despite the loss of three defensive starters in free agency with the departure of linebacker Landon Johnson, defensive end Justin Smith, and free safety Madieu Williams.
"People would say Justin didn't get 15 sacks, but he set the tempo for the defense with hard work and hustle," Palmer said. "He's a guy that just kept coming and coming. I think everyone thinks that Antwan Odom is going to come in and be that kind of player and we look forward to a guy like that. You have to trust that we've got guys who are ready to step in at the other spots."
The question is becoming, almost ludicrously at the tender age of 28, an annual one.
Is his window closing for a Super Bowl run?
"The window is always the same because your career could be over on the next snap," Palmer said. "You could blow out your knee. You could break your neck. Look at (David) Pollack. Whether your 23 or 36. You always have to play like that no matter what."
Palmer believes the organization's bid to build a winner around him has been hit with an inordinate amount of misfortune.
"They signed guys like Chad and T.J. And guys like Willie (Anderson) and Levi (Jones), who got hurt," he said. "And guys like Chris Perry and Pollack got hurt. I mean, there's been some bad luck."
As for this spring and the signing of Odom, the pending contract of Colts tight end Ben Utecht, and the unsuccessful trades for defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dewayne Robertson, Palmer said, "I don't know what more could have been done. We could have signed (cornerback) Asante Samuel. I guess he was the biggest free agent, but it's not a position we needed."
But, as usual, Palmer is looking at himself first. When it comes to becoming more of a leader in a locker room that always seems to be answering the unity question, he says he's prepared as his seniority grows.
"I've never thought that's been a problem," Palmer said. "I know I've never been anywhere else, but I talk to guys that have come over here from other teams and what they tell me is that guys here get along. It hasn't been a problem. A guy like Justin was positive and funny and made guys laugh, so hopefully we can get some guys in that role."
Palmer may not be the oldest player on this team. Of the players expected to be at training camp, a total of 17 are older than him. But with an uncertain '08 season semi-kicking off Monday and Palmer surfing in so optimistically, is there any one more important?
"I'll do whatever it takes," he said. "I guess I'm getting to be one of the older guys. If I need to be a better leader, I'm willing to do it."