2-21-03, 9:25 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
INDIANAPOLIS _ The right people around the Bengals covet Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer even as big-play receiver Charlie Rogers of Michigan State looms, their defensive line rehabs, and the secondary recovers.
Head coach Marvin Lewis won't tip his hand, yet he is already interested enough that he is off on fact-finding missions that have led him to the people who recruited Palmer to USC.
And the opinion no doubt vaulted when Palmer revealed Friday he would buck the pundits and put his No. 1 ranking on the line here and work out with the quarterbacks Sunday at the NFL scouting combine.
But the Bengals haven't completed their research. And with 65 days until they have to make the first pick in the NFL Draft, Palmer is dead on when he said, "I'm just not sure where they are and I'm not sure where I am."
Where Palmer stood Friday is at the mouth of the great maw, where first-round franchise quarterbacks have been swallowed up and never heard from again.
But Palmer, the 6-5, 232-pounder who turned heartbreak into the Heisman this past season, offered defiant words of praise for a Bengals' organization that has started 10 quarterbacks since drafting David Klingler No. 6 in 1992. That includes Akili Smith, the No. 3 pick in the 1999 draft that hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in the Bush administration. Between the two of them, they failed to win 10 starts.
"I think I'm different than those guys. I think I'm different than the guys they drafted in the past," Palmer said. "It's nothing against them or
anything like that. I just haven't met a lot of people like me. I look for the positives going into everything, whatever situation I'm going to go in and think I'll be able to turn it around and win lot of games."
And this is not a kid who is hypnotized. Palmer actually has a more intimate knowledge of how the Bengals work more than most outsiders because of his agents, David Dunn and Joby Branion. They have worked with new head coach Marvin Lewis in the past, they negotiated running back Corey Dillon's team record $5 million per year deal in 2001, and they also represent Smith. They believe Paul Brown Stadium is a pad on which to build and not a pit.
"It's very rare that the team holding the No. 1 pick in the draft has what the Bengals have on offense," Dunn said. "What team that won two games has two solid book-end tackles, one of the best running backs in the game, and talented young receivers? It's very enticing what they have on offense. I just know that Marvin is a bright, energetic coach that's going to to positively affect the attitudes of the players."
What no one is saying is that the circumstances are far different than when Smith arrived, since there are essentially all new coaches in the passing game.
Talk to Palmer, and you can tell the Bengals are a subject on which he has been given a seminar.
"I don't know what the big knock is. All I hear coming into this is the negative comments," Palmer said. "My agent and I sat down and he told me about the offensive line and the defensive-minded coach, Corey Dillon, and the receivers they have. It doesn't look bad to me. It's a good place for a quarterback to go if they need a quarterback, but there has been a lot of negative talk. Anytime you're losing, they're going to talk bad about you. That's what I learned in college."
But Palmer turned it all around in one year, leading the Trojans to an 11-2 season off a 6-6 year as a junior. He ended the regular season by ripping Notre Dame's fifth-ranked defense on 32 of 46 passing for 425 yards to finish a six-game roll he led USC to an average of 44 points while pitching 23 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Palmer chalks it up to being in offensive coordinator Norm Chow's system for two straight years, as well as having the same position coach for two years. Palmer says Chow did nothing with his mechanics, he just quietly did away with the West Coast offense, and simply put Palmer in a pro-style set geared to take advantage of his arm and athleticism, as well as running backs and a tight end who could catch.
"His maturity level has just risen. He was phenomenal this year," said Southern Cal receiver Kareem Kelly. "He put up big numbers in big games against good teams against good defenses. He just outshone his opponents. Chow meant that much. He had confidence in Carson to call the certain plays to believe that Carson could make these throws in the clutch."
Kelly's two favorite throws were the "go route," and the "post corner," two patterns that need big-time accuracy. He watched Palmer's athleticism pick up some first downs on 10-yard scrambles, but "toughness," is the first thing that comes to mind.
"He's a great athlete. That's obvious," Kelly said. "But it takes more than that on this level. I think mental toughness is his biggest asset right now."
One AFC general manager said he thinks Palmer is going to make it, " but it's going to be a slow make." Palmer has a rep for not being quick with the playbook, but the GM said, "He used to not work at it, but now he does. That's not a problem, but he'll need time."
One personnel man in the NFC said Palmer's size, athleticism, and performance down the 2002 stretch separate him from this field of quarterbacks. But whether it separates him from a guy like Rogers is another question.
Lewis admitted earlier this week that if he polled his veterans, they wouldn't want a rookie quarterback.
"It's up to the guys on the team who they would rather go with," Palmer said. "Like I said, there are plusses and negatives to (sitting behind a veteran). It can be a young guy first time in the NFL compared to a guy like (Jon) Kitna who has been there for a couple of years and knows the system and the offense. It depends on the situation."
Lewis has already said Kitna is the starter and the rookie sits, which is OK with Palmer.
"I don't think there's one way. They are both good and bad," Palmer said. "Get thrown in right away and that's good experience, but it's tough to have (success) right away. It's not good to have a year out because you lose experience, but you have time to really understand the offense. There are pros and cons to both aspects. I'm not going to worry about it."
Palmer now prides himself on his preparation and tries to emulate the thoroughness of Peyton Manning, a No. 1 quarterback he met at a Super Bowl party last month. Kelly saw it and thinks they turned it around with extra summer workouts and believes Palmer's intangibles composure, lifting teammates in the huddle, making big plays put him above his quarterback peers.
His decision to do all the passing drills here in the RCA Dome (he'll save the running for his March 12 workout at USC) gives a glimpse of his makeup. He's not worried about blowing the No. 1 pick Sunday. His main concern is going to the right team, the team that wants him for their system.
"How many opportunities do you get to throw to the best receivers in the country, the best backs in the country?" Palmer said. "I'm not thinking about doing better or worse, I'm just looking forward to it. It wasn't much of a decision. It's why I play football."
But with the Bengals right now, it's about more than football. It's about a mind frame, and Palmer thinks he can do what the others haven't.
"My leadership is different," Palmer said, ticking off the positives. "The way I approach the game. I'm very meticulous about preparation going into games."
Now the Bengals have 65 days to prepare for another franchise decision.