Palmer does it all

8-11-03, 12:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ Marvin Lewis saw rainbows while Carson Palmer threw some. It turned out the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft had a debut much like his rookie head coach here at drip-dry Giants Stadium Sunday.

Euphoria. Frustration. Encouragement. Failure.

What didn't Palmer experience?

He led the Bengals to their two touchdowns in a minefield of mistakes during a 28-13 loss to the Jets in completing two of the three longest passes of the game, which covered 36 and 28 yards. Yet in a span of 18 seconds, he threw two interceptions that got returned for touchdowns. But even without the benefit of his radio helmet and experienced receivers, he no-huddled the Bengals 44 yards in 1:07 for his first NFL touchdown pass, a 10-yard bolt to rookie wide receiver Chesley Borders with eight seconds left in the game. He got the ball away decisively enough that he didn't take a sack behind the backup offensive line.

He finished 12-for-22 for 140 yards, a proverbial half-full, half-empy stat line. Yes, there were the two picks. But did you feel this good after watching David Klingler and Akili Smith for the first time?

"I thought he did OK. Look at what he went through out there and hung in there," said wide receiver Danny Farmer. "I'll tell you what. When he was in there, he moved the team. You can say that."

But Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winner, wouldn't say that. He did say he let the game get away from the Bengals after his 36-yard bomb helped close the gap to 14-7 and had them on the doorstep with just under two minutes left and the ball on the Jets 32. But two Palmer passes that were thrown behind the receivers made it 28-7 in a blink. One pass could have been caught. The other, since the sure-handed Farmer didn't catch it, probably couldn't have been.

"I think we had a chance to win the game," Palmer said. "I threw two bad balls that turned the game around."

Jon Kitna, the man Palmer is to replace some time as the No. 1 quarterback, defended the rookie. There was the on-again, off-again monsoon. There was no radio working in the helmet.

"There were a lot of factors that you probably don't even realize for his first game," Kitna said. "He had to get the plays signaled in from the sidelines. The rain was horrendous. He had a lot of things working against him. I thought he handled himself really well."

Palmer, who led USC to at least 30 points per game in each of his last eight college starts, remained his unflappable self in the glare of the NFL's biggest media market.

"That's just football. There's going to be a lot of games your helmet doesn't work," Palmer said. "It's going to rain, it's going to snow, it's going to be windy. That's part of the game."

Then biggest part of this game came as the clock ticked under two minutes, when Palmer's eight-yard sideline flip to another rookie receiver, Lawrence Hamilton, put the Bengals on the Jets' 32 (and, oh don't you think Lewis would have gone for two?). That came after Palmer hung in as long as possible against the pass rush and found tight end Derek Smith for a five-yard gain on fourth-and-two.

Now, Hamilton, a college free agent who just got into camp Wednesday off the waiver wire from Arizona, was only playing because four receivers were sidelined. He made a cut across the middle, but instead of catching it, he deflected the ball right to safety Wes Bautovich, and Bautovich sped back down the sideline 78 yards for a touchdown.

"It was a little bit behind the receiver. I should have helped him (more)," Palmer said. "Especially in these conditions. You have to keep it in on their stomachs. The second one to Danny, it was behind Danny and the guy was gone. Both throws got away from me.

He can put the second one on himself after cornerback Troy Grant sped 36 yards for the touchdown with 1:26 left in the game, but he didn't hang his head.

"I'm sure no quarterback feels good about getting picked off twice for touchdowns," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "But he did come back when he could have really just said, 'Forget it,' and you have to like the way he hung in there."

A 50-yard kickoff return by rookie cornerback Terrell Roberts enabled Palmer's last drive. He set up the score with a 28-yard rainbow to Borders, and who are these guys again? Palmer had at his disposal three undrafted free agent rookies in Borders, Hamilton, and Adam Ziesel. His only veteran was Farmer and he admitted as he tried to catch that last ball, "I was exhausted."

But with third-round draft pick Kelley Washington stunning the team by getting his neck checked Sunday, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (hamstring), Ron Dugans (Achilles'), and Kwazeon Leverette (toe) all out, that's all Palmer had.

"He was good in the huddle, you'd have to say poised," said Alex Sulfsted, who played left guard on the first touchdown and left tackle on the second. "I couldn't tell there was anything wrong with his helmet."

Palmer admitted he had never seen it rain like it pistol-whipped the Meadowlands Sunday. "It was dumping," he said, and the ball at times felt like it "was a medicine ball."

"It was hard out there, Farmer said. "And he still threw some really good balls."

Lewis tried to buck him up after the second interception, ("C'mon babe, you've got to keep throwing"), and he only got on him for one mistake, which was a delay of game penalty right before he threw the touchdown pass.

"That's on him. He had plenty of time," Lewis said. "He handled (other situations). He handled the huddle. He threw the ball behind one guy and it went off the other guy's hands. I think he did a nice job. He'll grow from it, that's for sure."

Palmer was as sincere as the ball was wet. He said he wished he could narrow it down, but he said he has too many things to work on to list. He shook his head and said, "I've got a lot to learn. . .We're still installing stuff in the offense. I've got a lot of work to do in the playbook."

But he feels the May and June minicamps have been a big help.

"I think I got used to the speed of the game," Palmer said. "You make yourself faster. You speed up your footwork. Once you speed up your game, you become better."

He would like to speed it up so he plays someone else Monday. But first he wants to see the tape.

"Jon is the best quarterback on this team," Palmer said. "I've still got a long way to go."

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