6-10-03, 3:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Shane Matthews, veteran quarterback of 10 NFL seasons, three teams, and countless systems, has never seen anything like it.
Here are rookie quarterback Carson Palmer and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese playing checkers while the rest of the NFL waits to see how the Bengals are going to position the league's No. 1 draft pick.
The Bengals have yet to "king," Palmer, but this board-less version of the game could help speed up his force-feeding of the playbook in yet another intriguing contrast with the recently departed Akili Smith.
At first it struck Matthews as a bit funny. Maybe he was thinking, "Where's the lemonade and porch?" But then Matthews looked at it and thought they must be doing something right.
"He's a lot farther along than I thought he would be at this point," Matthews said.
Instead of always making Palmer and the other quarterbacks draw plays on the board, Zampese also lays out red and black checkers on a table and supervises the movements that are symbolized by the pieces. It's a tool Zampese recently picked up from University of California head coach Jeff Tedford, and it was one of the ways Tedford taught Smith the offense at Oregon so well when he was the Ducks offensive coordinator that he turned a junior college transfer into the third pick in the 1999 draft.
Since then, Tedford has produced two more first-round quarterbacks in Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller, and Zampese didn't get his master's in adult education from USC for nothing.
"I started using it this spring. I had heard about it before, thought nothing of it, and then I heard about it again," Zampese said. "Then I started thinking, hey, too many good
things have happened in a row. Every quarterback (Tedford) touches turns to gold. He's coaching Midas. He keeps churning them out. I stole it completely. If I can take any little thing I can steal, then I'll steal it and use it."
Smith used to long for those checkered days under Tedford early in his career after never mastering the moves of the Bengals' edition of the West Coast offense. Palmer never saw this particular learning aide until he arrived here and began working with Zampese.
"It's a little different way to do it," Palmer said. "I guess it's a little easier to do on the table than it is on the board. It makes you look at it differently."
Matthews: "I've done it once or twice. It's a lot easier than drawing on the board. It goes faster."
Zampese likes using the checkers for his Xs and Os because it forces students to express more with a single move than a single drawing.
"It's a little quicker way than film or drawing on the board to get certain situations thought about and your reaction to them," Zampese said. "You actually have to move people. It's not just looking at it and making an answer. You actually have to physically move a piece and explain why you're moving it, and what happen s when it moves and all the ramifications of when a defender moves. Which guys are responsible for which guys. Protection-wise, how routes change with different coverage looks."
Zampese also uses the checkers to help with the daily installation of pass protections and checks at the line of scrimmage, and has found, "it helps guys progress faster. You get more reps faster."
Palmer says he's not as overwhelmed with the offense as he was at his first camp, and says it's getting easier every practice. Some club insiders suggest he's far and away past where Smith was at a comparable stage in his career.
Palmer also admits it's coming slowly ("who knows how long it's going to take? Every practice there are more and more plays in and that slows it down a little bit"), but he is trying to make sure he's not distracted by the competition for No. 2 with Matthews. In fact, Palmer says Matthews' "game time experience is invaluable," and makes him a natural backup, giving him a leg up on him even though he knows the offense better than Matthews.
"I'm competing to compete," Palmer said. "Whether I'm No. 1, 2 or 3, it's not my choice. All I can do about the situation is work as hard as I can and learn as fast as I can. I don't have a goal what spot I'm going to be. My goal is just to learn the offense and get as much under my belt as I can."
Zampese says he sees some things and doesn't see other things, but the kid is always there doing what he's told. He received a lottery check a month ago, but as one of the rookie quarterbacks he is responsible for turning out the lights in the meeting room, getting chairs for the veterans, and making food runs whenever called.
Told Kitna said the pre-season games will turn out to be Palmer's season, Palmer laughed and said, "So he doesn't take any hits."
"I'm impressed. He's got a bright future," Matthews said. "He's a bright guy. He's laid back like I am. He's not a rah rah guy, but he's got all the qualities you look for in a quarterback, especially the prototypical size. Oh man, he's a lot bigger than I ever thought he would be."
Now Palmer knows what's next.
It's his move.