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'No QB I'd rather have'

Carson Palmer

Favre is Lord and Peyton is the prince and Brees is boss while Brady is the supermodel of a Hall of Fame career.

But in the Bengals locker room, Carson Palmer remains king even as the critics say this is his last stand.

"There's no other quarterback in the NFL I'd rather be protecting than him," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "As good as he is, he wants the people around him to get the limelight. He doesn't want it."

"He's the best quarterback I've ever played under," says running back Cedric Benson. "I'd take Carson over Brady and I'm not saying that because I play on his team. I'd seriously take him. Just his placement of the ball. He doesn't throw a lot of balls that aren't makeable by the receiver. He's very smart. Brave in the pocket."

Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the anti-Carson with the three Super Bowl rings, celebrity wife, fashionable big city address and his opponent for Sunday's 1 p.m. season opener in New England (Cincinnati's Channel 12) is a believer.

"I've watched Carson for a long time, since he came in the league. He's got everything you're looking for in a quarterback," Brady said this week. "He throws the ball extremely accurately, makes good decisions, great leader, and has great command. He can make all the throws, and he's very athletic and tough. He's big and able to elude rushers. I think he's one of the elite quarterbacks in the game, that's pretty obvious."

Obvious to everyone but the pundits national and local railing that Palmer is declining or that he is at the crossroads of his career or that he is simply a middle-of-the-road quarterback.

"Carson doesn't care about that stuff," says Jordan Palmer, his brother and backup. "If he heard somebody said he was a bad guy, that would bother him and he'd want to find out why. But if you think he's not a good player, he doesn't care."

But Carson does care about winning and Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, are as good as any place to start this season of whatever it is for Palmer.

Redemption? Referendum? Reinvention?

Only Brady and Belichick have been around longer as a combo than Palmer and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in the NFL revolving door that spits out quarterbacks and coaches fastest.

But Belichick and Brady have won three Super Bowl rings. Palmer is the longest tenured starting quarterback without a playoff victory. Lewis has the fourth most wins of any coach in history without a playoff victory. Sunday marks his 115th game as Bengals head coach, tying Paul Brown. Like Brown and Sam Wyche by that time, he has won two divisions.

But at age 30 and now more than seven years from the day Lewis said they were "connected at the hip," Palmer admits he thought playoff wins would have happened a lot sooner.

"There are 500 reasons why not," Palmer says. "The bottom line for me is that if you don't win, the quarterback didn't play well enough."

That probably wouldn't make Lewis' top 500. Catch him in a wistful moment and the coach points to that second game in 2006. It was his fourth season, the Bengals were coming off a division title, Palmer was headed to his second straight Pro Bowl and in one afternoon the Bengals lost Rich Braham, David Pollack and Tab Perry to career-ending injuries.

Or, there was Palmer's elbow injury in 2008 that cost him 12 games. Or there was the missed field goal in 2006 that cost the Bengals back-to-back playoffs, Or…

But no playoff wins is the major reason why the national guys are down on Palmer.

And yet quarterback play isn't a reason for not being able to get over the hump in the Bengals locker room. Indeed, try even the front office. Palmer has more pull around here than any player since Norman Julius Esiason and the presence of Terrell Owens is 81 examples.

But it is Palmer's remarkable 2009 season that stands like a monument in the room. Palmer may not have one of Brady's rings, but he engineered a sweep in the most defensive-dominated division in football with a revamped offense that virtually had no tight ends and one receiving threat.

And he has as much California cool as Brady with seven last-drive points last year with the clock hovering at two minutes and coaxing his team into the lead or tie.

The Bengals won the title, of course, on his last-minute throw to The Ocho against Kansas City that turned around a 14-10 deficit and when they were still handing out the hats Benson walked to Palmer's locker, shook his hand, and thanked him for being his quarterback.

"He commands the field," says right guard Bobbie Williams. "That's the thing that gets overlooked. Carson is the same as he is for the previous three quarters, but it seems like the guys around him get a little more focused and he's been trying to get guys focused all the time. It seems like in crucial times guys just wake up and he says, 'Let's do this all the time.' "

With toddling twins now a year and a half old and heading into his seventh season as a starter, Palmer likes to say he's in the middle of his career. But there is no mid-life crisis here. If Brady's accident in his Audi can get presidential coverage, Palmer's drive home in his truck to the secluded shade of Cincinnati's Indian Hill shows how the superstar next door hasn't changed. He really is married to the ultimate soccer mom, USC's goalie while he was winning the Heisman.

But January's playoff loss to the Jets rocked his usually implacable outlook. He says the losses at 30 hurt as much as they did at 20. But he also admits he never paid much attention to the first playoff loss because he threw only one ball and he was so concerned about getting back for '06 after his knee got shredded.

But this one…

This is probably why the pundits are so down on him, too. Never mind that some of the early drops were catchable and there were some wrong routes run at times. But he wasn't Carson sharp and there was a call to the drawing board back in California in the offseason.

"A lot of it was footwork," Jordan Palmer says. "You look at a guy like Drew Brees. Below average arm, but tremendous pocket presence. He knows how to get another split second to throw. That's what Carson was working on and that kind of gets me excited. Carson Palmer getting another split second throwing to our receivers? It's a hard thing to work on. It's all feel behind the line with bodies moving. He couldn't work on it until he got back here with the team."

Carson Palmer doesn't give anyone much to go on. His inner thoughts are as private as his personal life. But his take on Brady sheds an idea of what he's working on back there.

"He doesn't have a weakness to his game," Palmer says. "He does a number of things very well, but I think one of the things that has made him most successful is the way he can move in the pocket and sense rushes without staring at the rush. Feel the rush and keep his eyes downfield and make one step here, one step there and still deliver the ball, maybe not on time but in the right place."

Palmer says Brady was one of the guys he watched on tape to get a better feel for the footwork. As well as Brees and "newer Peyton Manning, older Peyton Manning," he said.

Newer Palmer?

"Footwork; it will look different," Palmer says. "Some of the things I am doing with my feet are different. The way I am setting into drops and getting myself prepared to throw a certain direction is a little bit different than what I have done in the past.

"Setting myself up at the center of the pocket instead of moving around side to side a little bit, and giving myself the most amount of room between guards and center. I think if there is one thing I really focused on and spent the most time, on it was definitely footwork."

But the footwork mirrors the movement in other parts of his approach. Whitworth, who arrived in that fork-in-the-road '06 season, has been taking notes.

"I've seen him become even more vocal just this year," Whitworth says. "He's grown every year as a leader, but now I see him more as a teacher. This training camp he was talking more to the fullbacks, the running backs, everybody. He was quizzing them, 'what do you have to do here to make this work?' or what do you do against this look?' "

This is the guy that Lewis wanted to lead his program. There was some question around the league when Palmer was taken No. 1 overall in 2003 if he had the personality to lead. The Bengals were convinced he had it, and if there were any fence-sitters they just looked at his arm again.

"There were some questions because I think of his position early at USC," Lewis says. "He had different coaches through his time there. Obviously, we have benefited from his personality. He's got a great personality. He's very talented at whatever he does. He's been assertive ever since he started playing in '04. Jon (Kitna) taught him how to lead the team and when he left in '06, Carson took it and ran with it."

Lewis never hesitates taking a shot at the pundits. These are the same guys who kept saying Lewis was on the hot seat when he was safer than a church mouse. He thinks they've misfiled some of their previous stories on Palmer.

"They've got to go back and check their notes," Lewis says. "This was the same guy at the beginning of the year that was playing well and leading us to some tough wins. He led us to a division championship by not trying to do everything. By not trying to do too much early in the game and then letting the game come to him."

Lewis and Palmer are an interesting dynamic, too.

Both are criticized for not getting over the hump and in a lot of locker rooms their stays would have been overextended. But veterans praise each for changing and growing. Palmer for becoming more assertive and Lewis for letting players like Palmer become more assertive. And listening more to the leaders when they say it's time to back off the practices.

There was a time before the tough times hit in '08 that Lewis told the players to back off, that the coaches would take care of locker-room issues. Some players bristled, but Palmer could see where he was coming from.

"I think he had some guys that couldn't handle that and he knew it and had to watch it," Palmer says. "I think Marvin has gotten better every year as a coach and that's one of the reasons: He knows his locker room."

Whitworth says the players locker room evolved through the 4-11-1 season of '08 and the tough, early part of '09. The leaders came from his draft and the next two - Domata Peko, Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall, Keith Rivers – as well as vets picked off the street when misery hit. Like Dhani Jones and Chris Crocker. The DNA of the team that had nothing to play for in December '08 had completely changed from the team that had everything to play for in December '06.

"That was the sign of a good coach: Getting us to play hard at the end of '08 and that set it up for last year," Whitworth says. "The leadership thing kind of evolved that way. Now this year he's saying we have to get that from the get-go. 'This is your team. Take ownership of it.' "

Palmer has. But nothing has changed on the outside. He won't give in.

"Even keel," is how Whitworth describes him.

"I don't care what they say," Palmer says of the pundits. "I'll prove them wrong."

Lewis is, of course, thinking the same thing even as he downplays the matchup with Belichick-Brady.

"They've had more success than we've had; we're still working on it," Lewis says. "This is just one game. The first game."

"I'm just going to do what I have to do for my team to win," Palmer says.

In this locker room, that's all that matters.

"I like it," Bobbie Williams says. "Under the radar."

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