5-8-04, 6:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Carson Palmer showed up at Paul Brown Stadium Friday for his first practice as the Bengals' No. 1 quarterback and eased into the role as if he's done it for the last 20 years.
Or (is it possible now?) since Boomer Esiason arrived from Maryland in the second round in 1984.
On the field, Palmer briskly flicked an over-the-shoulder touchdown bomb to wide receiver Patrick Johnson racing down the field with the kind of big play the Bengals are banking on takes them to the playoffs. Off the field, he calmly met the media in a news conference in the comfort of his bare feet.
"He might not seem like a guy that just drank a pot of coffee. He's like a surfer guy," said Johnson, the seven-year veteran with his fourth team in four years. "Those guys aren't real wired, but that's just the way he is. He's a good a quarterback. He should be a great player. His touch is the one thing I noticed. He's got it."
The Bengals are hoping he's got it. Esiason, the Bengals' last playoff quarterback who arrived at PBS Friday night shortly after Palmer's No. 1 debut for the club's alumni dinner, thinks he's got enough of it.
Enough to take them back to the postseason this year even though he has yet to take a NFL snap.
"I think the offense is not the problem here," said Esiason, who gave Palmer some advice last weekend at a quarterback challenge. "They have one of the best offensive lines in the league. If Rudi Johnson plays like he did last year, they have a good solid running game. They have one of the best young wide receivers in football, plus Peter Warrick showed a lot of people he can be a big-time player in this league. If the defense can absorb those mistakes Carson is going to make early on, they can overcome those mistakes and be solid. He's a winner. He can make plays. That's why they drafted him."
The flick-of-the wrist pass to Johnson is why they drafted Palmer. It's why head coach Marvin Lewis defended his decision to start Palmer over Jon Kitna for the umpteenth time since March 1 on Friday by saying, "He has more skill and ability than anyone in our building."
"He put that ball right in the place where he should have put it," Johnson said. "The defender would have had to go through me to get the ball. He put the ball right there."
Even though Friday was just a get-acquainted session for the rookies with about 20 veterans, Palmer got a taste of the heavy workload he's going to get this preseason. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese estimated he took about 75 percent of the snaps and knew where he was going on each of them. Palmer goes at it again in about 10 days, when the veterans resume their on-field coaching sessions.
"I know there may have only been two defensive looks and it wasn't the New England Patriots out there. But to be able to know where the ball is going is critical. He had a good day," Zampese said.
Palmer admitted he feels like a rookie because he has yet to play in a game and last year's 16 weeks sitting behind Kitna, "seemed like 16 months." But he also said there was no comparison about where he is mentally a year later.
"I didn't know what I was doing, what offense we were running, what the defense was doing," he said.
Now, he says he has a better sense of how quickly the receiver is going to be open. After a year of booking it with Zampese and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, he has studied defense almost as much as offense and knows what defenders are doing as much as his receivers.
"Who knows? I could have gone in and thrown 20 picks or I could have gone in and thrown 20 touchdowns," said Palmer, when asked if he wasted a year last season. "I was in a great situation (last year). . .There's no question I'm better prepared."
But he also realizes after spending a year watching film, the only true way to learn to play NFL quarterback is "to experience it. To feel it."
A packed news conference trying to take his temperature? Been there, done that as a four-year starter in the big market of Los Angeles and a Heisman Trophy winner. The playoff expectations fueled by Kitna's brilliant season? A short, cool answer:
"You can't listen to expectations outside your own organization."
Palmer insisted he acted no differently Friday and, indeed, that surfer demeanor that struck Johnson is one of the reasons the Bengals rode the wave and made him the first pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
"He's not in awe of it, which I don't think Carson has ever been in his whole life," said Lewis, who knows he has been groomed for this his whole life. "Nothing seems to be too big or small for him. He always is even keel. That's what you like about a guy. He can handle the ups and downs of it. . .and it won't wear him down."
Veteran wide receivers Kelley Washington and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (who were singled out for their play Friday by Lewis) worked with Palmer last year in practice. While the accurate throws were the same, they thought the Southern Cal persona got a little more urgent.
"He had a different demeanor," Washington said. "Last year, if he made a bad throw or something, he shook it off. Now, he's more into it. He had real good huddle control. The quarterback is the leader of your offense, and you saw that today."
Houshmandzadeh saw the same arm, but heard a different voice.
"He had the demeanor and the presence to be the man last year, but he wasn't," Houshmandzadeh said. "He might have been more hands-on today because he knew he is the man. You know he's going to be good, it's just a matter of him getting the experience and the reps to do it."
It's a foregone conclusion that Palmer has the Pro Bowl skills. "You can see that when he's warming up," Houshmandzadeh said. Palmer is the first to know it comes down to experience and leadership.
"I definitely believe as the quarterback, whether it's your first year in the league, or 21st year in the league, you have to step up and take command of the team," Palmer said. "But I realize there are enough guys here who can help me and be leaders on the team."
Esiason spoke to Palmer about his role when they were both part of a quarterback challenge to be televised in July. His advice is spare, but stark.
"The 10 other guys around you have to believe you can lead them to victory," Esiason said. "The biggest thing a quarterback can do is make his guys think they can win. Be in charge. Be the man everybody wants you to be. You don't have to be somebody phony, but be in charge. Be decisive. Be strong. Be tall."
Esiason is uncomfortable with Kitna's contract extension through 2005. Even though he feels like Kitna very easily could have been the guy for the next five years, once they opted for Palmer, he feels the Bengals should have released Kitna.
After living through two transitions – from Ken Anderson to him and from him to David Klingler _ Esiason thinks it would be easier on Palmer if Kitna and how well he did in 2003 isn't around when Palmer struggles.
"I wish he had a clean slate and just go and not worry about it," Esiason said. "I don't think Jon would do anything on purpose, but it will be there just because he's around and someone else will initiate it. Carson told me he has a great relationship with Jon. I hope he does, but at the end of day, he still has to prove that he's the guy that's going to take them to the next level. That's why they drafted him."
Palmer may be looking to take them to the next level, but it's that level head they love.
"I'm going to go out and do what I'm expected to do and try to get better each week," he said. "I'm not going to let outside expectation affect the way I play or the way I prepare. You can't let that weigh you down."