Carson Palmer turns 31 Monday, but it looks like the Bengals have given him the gift of youth.
If there was ever a doubt that Palmer can still be an elite quarterback, that was shattered Sunday in the Paul Brown Stadium finale when he didn't have his two starting wide receivers. While the Bengals passed the torch to Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, Palmer torched the top-ranked Chargers defense with the best passer rating of his career while outplaying one of the NFL's top quarterbacks in the 34-20 victory over Philip Rivers and San Diego.
If there was ever a doubt that hard work and perseverance are more than cliché, Simpson proved all is right with the world by coming off the oblivion of the inactive list to catch two touchdown passes and 124 yards in a career that before last Sunday had yielded one catch for one yard. His tag-team partner from the 2008 draft, Caldwell, had his second-best day with 87 yards a week after his best day of 89 yards.
And a week after veteran running back Cedric Benson wept when the Bengals broke their 10-game losing streak against Cleveland, Simpson's voice wavered with the same emotion as he thanked everything from his mother's advice to Terrell Owens' tweet. From Benson pushing a shaving cream pie in his face to defensive tackle Domata Peko giving him a shout out, Simpson is clearly a popular guy in the locker room because of his enthusiasm and work ethic.
With Owens (knee) and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (ankle) injured and pretty much free agents, Palmer looks ready to mold another generation of receivers. Like The Ocho himself told Simpson on the sidelines, "Don't look back."
"I never stopped believing I could do it," said Simpson, the 2008 second-rounder who went from draft bust to gamebreaker by sundown Sunday. "I knew what I could do all the time. This is for all the people that support me and didn't support me. I knew I could do this from day one."
When Owens hurt his knee last week, he tweeted Simpson and basically told him, "Man, you've got a lot of talent. It's your time to shine."
Reminding him how he went to head coach Marvin Lewis two weeks ago after the loss in Pittsburgh pleading with him to give him a chance, Simpson revealed his passion that his coaches and teammates see every day.
"I want to play for him. I want to play for this city. I want to be coached," Simpson said. "I just want to help us win games ... this really belongs to my teammates. Guys like T.O. and Chad have been so supportive."
Palmer, the guy who looked so tired and frustrated during the losing streak trying to force the ball to Owens and Ochocinco, suddenly looks spry and rejuvenated. After the worst performance of his career two weeks ago in Pittsburgh in which he threw three interceptions, two for pick-sixes, he has completed 30 of 44 passes for 478 yards for four touchdowns and no interceptions.
"Same game plans. We're not doing anything different. We're not trying to trick anybody," Palmer said. "We're still doing what we do. We're just able to run the ball and able to get some play-action stuff because we're running the ball and when your defense plays like that, when they put your (foe) on your side of the field in a field-position game, it makes it much easier."
But it wasn't the same because the Bengals stuck with the run longer than they ever have all year. Despite gaining just 2.7 yards per run, they mashed it a season-high 38 times. Even though Cedric Benson lost yardage on six carries, he ran it 24 times for 52 yards. For the first time all year Benson and Bernard Scott (50 yards on 11 carries) both had double-digit carries.
"Cedric was a big factor today," Palmer said. "Cedric opened up what we got at the end of the game by wearing those guys down. He's hitting the hole so hard and guys at the end of the game did not want to tackle him and didn't want to play the run. It was good to see Bernard get his first touchdown. I know Ced wanted it and Ced deserved it. It's just good to see Bernard get his first touchdown."
The weird thing is how comfortable and in rhythm Palmer looked throwing to Simpson, Caldwell, and his pair of rookies in tight end Jermaine Gresham and wide receiver Jordan Shipley. In the face of the Chargers blitz he threw blindly a couple of times, trusting that guys with a total of 81 NFL games would be there after not being on the same page much of the year with Ochocinco and Owens.
"These guys know if they get to the right spot and right depths, they'll get the ball and they'll be rewarded for winning in tough coverage situations," Palmer said. "You trust they'll make a play on the ball and not let the defender make a play on the ball. It's not perfect every time. We have to continue working on our timing and continue to develop them."
Simpson couldn't get on the field not only because he was playing behind a six-time Pro Bowler in The Ocho, but because that X spot was the only one he could handle as he adjusted to the NFL's more sophisticated offenses in the jump from Division II Coastal Carolina. He had the biggest hands of the receivers at the '08 combine and one of the highest vertical leaps, but the coaching staff couldn't trust him to consistently run his assignments.
But Palmer said that all began to change this season and Sunday's last pass reflected how far Simpson has come. On third-and-seven from the Bengals 41, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski called for a quick snap and Simpson beat a gassed San Diego secondary for a 59-yard touchdown as he simply motored past cornerback Antoine Cason down the left sideline.
"I don't think there was a specific day or specific week," Palmer said. "He just showed he could play and he can be trusted. I think the two balls he caught last week were an example of that. Two tough routes to run against certain coverages. It's an example of the biggest lesson. A guy that didn't get a shot, didn't get a shot, wasn't even dressing out for games, didn't give up, didn't quit. I'm just really happy for him."
Simpson said the quick snap was called and he could see why.
"Just two snaps before Andre had run a great post and Carson threw a great ball and it was just a little too far," Simpson said. "We knew they were tired and we attacked that left side. ... Maybe it was a little stutter (step) but we were just trying to catch them off guard ... we had executed it in practice."
Simpson showed everybody where "The 'Rome Zone" is on his first NFL touchdown catch. It came early in the second quarter and gave the Bengals a 13-0 lead on a critical third-and-10 from the 10. Palmer hit him on a fade in the corner and Simpson muscled the ball away as he leaped over strong safety Paul Oliver and made sure he got both feet down to survive a challenge.
Welcome to The 'Rome Zone.
"I already knew it was a touchdown. I knew I controlled it. I trust in these hands," said Simpson, lifting up his biggest strengths. "Carson threw a great ball. ... On the corner routes those DBs are going to try and rip the ball away from me, so I tried to keep it up high and control the ball."
After not allowing a sack to the NFL's most prolific sackers, the Bengals offensive line admitted they enjoyed the show put on by Simpson and Caldwell.
"We knew they were going to try and stop the run; they've got a lot of different blitzes," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We stuck with the run knowing we were going to end up eventually opening up the passes because they kept bringing the safety down there in the box blitzing and it left the fast receivers one-on-one. It was like a track meet out there."
Whitworth is one of the guys who finds Simpson's enthusiasm infectious. After the last drive he gave Simpson a big hug, told him how proud of him he was, and "like a big kid," he said, "Thanks, Big Whit."
"Both of those guys (Caldwell and Simpson) work their tails off," Whitworth said. "We get to see them every day put on shows in practice. It was nice to see them get out of the stables and run. It was like a track meet. They don't get tired and they can run."
Whitworth said the team spent some of last week watching how physical Simpson and Caldwell were in the running game against Cleveland and how they offered inspiration for this Sunday. But Caldwell left Sunday impressing people with his speed. Quentin Jammer, a solid, experienced corner, hasn't covered him yet on a vertical route. He's the guy that Caldwell ran past on the post that nearly went, and in the second quarter he ran past him for a 44-yard bomb.
"To go out there against Jammer and Cason, who is having a really good year, and two pass-defending safeties — those guys really aren't run defending safeties, but they are really good coverage guys," Palmer said, "they did a great job in their routes. They didn't give anything away that you worry about with young guys, which could give a DB a chance to break on a route. They didn't do that. They stuck with the game plan. They ran great routes and they made big plays. Those guys made some of the bigger plays that we've had all season. They made contested catches and they did a nice job."
Palmer, hounded by local boos and national jibes, looked refreshed. It looks like reports of his demise have been exaggerated.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I think I've got plenty left."
It may sound like a Pepsi commercial, but with the help of a new generation.