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Palmer all the news fit to print

7-20-04, 11:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON ** takes a look at each position as the first practice of training camp on July 31 closes in. After a season on the bench, No. 1 draft pick Carson Palmer is No. 1 among four quarterbacks. (Years of experience in parenthesis).

SI's BIGGEST GAMBLE:Carson Palmer (2).


NO. 3 DERBY: Casey Bramlet (R), Scott Rislov (R).

Sports Illustrated calls it the NFL's biggest gamble this season.

The Bengals call the elevation of Carson Palmer over NFL Comeback Player of the Year Jon Kitna a simple evolution of the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner and 2003 No. 1 NFL draft pick taking his rightful spot as the club's franchise quarterback.

But the fact that SI has profiled Palmer in its July 26 issue the week NFL training camps start shows that head coach Marvin Lewis' gamble might be scrutinized as much as a Martha Stewart stock hunch.

Yet Lewis and his coaches keep indicating they won't wait for Palmer to find himself.

"Marvin has made it clear," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski on Tuesday. "He's not going to let the position get in the way of winning games. To me, that's the end of it.

"He's made progress in every area," Bratkowski said. "But playing in practice is different than playing on Sunday afternoon. We hope he continues to keep improving and we think he will. But we need the people around him to step up and play well if he's going to play well."

That is SI's theme. No longer, Lewis tells the magazine, can the offense rely on Kitna to get people in place. The idea is that Palmer has better pass-protecting tackles and more game-breaking receivers than the two franchise QBs who came before in David Klingler and Akili Smith.

More proof the pundits are poised to pounce on the Palmer-Kitna decision like the lawyers jumped on another close call between signal callers Bush and Gore?

Last month, an internet report gossiped some of Palmer's teammates didn't think he had enough command of the offense to wrest the job from Kitna.

But the SI profile paints a picture of Palmer better known around Paul Brown Stadium. He already made leadership points with his mates last season by inviting players to his home each week for Monday Night Football and lured the offensive linemen and tight ends to his woodsy backyard to play paint ball during the offseason.

And, as for picking up the system, Bratkowski reiterated Tuesday what he has insisted since spring camp ended last month: "His huddle presence is impressive and he's obviously got an understanding of his reads."

After one practice this spring, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said he had yet to see Palmer not know where to go with the ball.

His strengths are obvious. He can throw on the run, he can wing an accurate deep ball, and he can whistle low line-drive out patterns. Weaknesses? He admitted the spring was valuable because he got used to a NFL two-minute drill, and how does he respond to non-vanilla defenses?

"So far, so good," said veteran safety Kim Herring after one of the May coaching sessions. "I think he reads defenses well for this being the majority of snaps he's taken. And, it seems like he's got a command of the offense. Guys are listening to him, and he's motioning guys where to go."

Bratkowski couldn't hide his disgust when asked about Palmer winning the distance competition and finishing sixth in a quarterback challenge aired this past weekend but undertaken three months ago.

"Means absolutely nothing," Bratkowski said. "It's not football."

Two things are certain. Palmer isn't going to end up like Klingler and Smith. But even if he'll end up completing the franchise's QB trinity and join Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason as playoff quarterbacks and record holders, he'll have to pay some kind of dues this year.

And, there won't exactly be a shrinking violet behind him in Kitna. Bratkowski coached him when he was a NAIA free agent in 1995 and coached him last year when he delivered a Pro Bowl season with a 87.4 passer rating.

"He understands the NFL game, he understands what defenses do, and understands what offenses have to do to attack them," Bratkowski said of the 21st century version. "I thought Jon had a great spring. A real good spring. He's keeping the fire burning under Carson. It's like, 'I'm here to help you, but I'm pushing you.'"

Another way to disgust Bratkowski is to assume Palmer has a much stronger arm than Kitna.

"What are you looking at?" Bratkowski asked. "Are you looking at strength, are you looking at accuracy, are you looking at strength under fire? It's a hard thing to say because there are so many areas."

Another certainty. Not many players would have handled the demotion as classy as Kitna did back on March 1, the day Lewis went public. When Kitna, who turns 32 in September, extended his contract through '05 about six weeks later, it all but guaranteed he'll be here until then because his salary is pretty much based on play time.

Lewis' youth movement includes the No. 3 quarterback, where rookies Casey Bramlet, a seventh-rounder out of Wyoming, and Scott Rislov, a free agent out of San Jose State, figure to hash it out in the pre-season games.

Finally, a QB derby at No. 3 and not No. 1.

Bramlet could have a slight edge going into camp because San Jose's late graduation date cost Rislov some time at the spring camps. But the 6-1, 220-pound Rislov has solid credentials as the only passer in San Jose State history to gain 3,000 yards in a season twice and as MVP of the last Blue-Gray All-Star Classic.

"I think Casey's got something like 10 more meetings and practices, so that's something (Rislov) is going to have to overcome," Bratkowski said. "But he showed he's got a good arm and good intelligence."

The 6-4, 210-pound Bramlet came as advertised in the spring sessions. A seasoned, big guy who tamed some hellacious weather and circumstances with his arm and guts.

"He's a guy who is better in 11-on-11 drills in real football as opposed to the individual drills," Bratkowski said. "He's a mentally tough, physically tough guy who you can tell it's not too big for him."

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