Touchstone


Carson Palmer

Posted: 11:30 a.m.

It's not exactly Joe Montana sealing the Bengals fate all those years ago when he glimpsed John Candy in the crowd as he broke the huddle for The Drive.

But Carson Palmer coming out of the huddle on a gimpy ankle needing a touchdown to avert Armageddon in the opener two weeks ago against Denver in front of a surly Paul Brown Stadium crowd shows where these Bengals stand with a Pro Bowl quarterback at the crossroads nearing 30 with new twins and old obstacles.

Down 6-0 with less than seven minutes left, the way left tackle Andrew Whitworth remembers it Palmer said, "All right guys, we're going to go down and score. Get in here. No penalties and we're going to go 91 yards and score."

"He was right," said Whitworth, who has been huddling with Palmer since 2006. "That's a commanding presence in the huddle and he has the ability to do that. Carson has definitely taken more of a leadership role this year. He has a calming role. He's the guy that gets us settled down. He has more command (of the huddle). Guys aren't talking as much in the huddle. They're listening to what he wants. Guys see how much he cares. All eyes and ears and attention are given to him. From '06 to now he's got so much more respect and leadership in the huddle."

It should have been Palmer's eighth career victory in which he brought the Bengals back from a fourth-quarter deficit. But when the drive was erased with 38 seconds of ridiculousness it became symbolic of the fates he's faced since setting a team record six touchdown passes in Cleveland on Sept. 16, 2007.

Since then, he's thrown 24 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions. He's 7-13 as a starter, missed 12 games with a bad elbow, three preseason games with a sprained ankle, lost most of his offensive line, taken more hits than an MMA video, became a father of twins, and a leading man in an HBO documentary.

And his last fourth-quarter rally came nearly two years ago in a 38-31 win over the Jets on Oct. 21, 2007.

But the fact Palmer survived two of his worst interceptions ever the next week in Green Bay and steadied himself and the team for one of its biggest wins under head coach Marvin Lewis shows it.

Why everyone is still counting on Palmer as he heads into Sunday's touchstone game for him and his franchise against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers.

"I was taught at a young age that the truest test for a quarterback is whether you come back after you throw a pick," Palmer said a few days ago amid the hubbub of Pittsburgh week. "How do you respond? Every time I throw a pick my goal is to forget about and it come back with a score on the next drive."

Forget the picks. There have been so many other things to move past. The hits. The injuries. The losses. But the only time the guy's hair moves is when he sports one of his week growths.

Carson Unflappable Palmer.

"He's never changed; he just moves on," said Jordan Palmer, his younger brother who has been with him the last two seasons as the No. 3 quarterback. "He's the same. Never too high, never too low. People forget. He didn't just show up as a great quarterback at USC. I think before his senior year (and the Heisman) he had as many touchdowns as interceptions. He's worked at it and been through a lot." 

Pittsburgh is always the touchstone game for Carson.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got drafted a year later and already has two Super Bowl rings. Some say he took one of them right from Palmer in the Wild Card game of 2006 when the Steelers' Kimo von Oelhoffen hit Palmer's knee as he unleashed a 66-yard pass on the game's second snap and put him down with an ACL injury. The Steelers won the Super Bowl and Palmer and the Bengals went to reconstructive surgery.

You can still see the scars. He's one of just 10 guys left on the team from that day.

Roethlisberger didn't have to go through Palmer last year on the way to his second title. And Dick LeBeau's defense has been a nemesis, saddling Palmer with some of the lowest passer ratings of his career. But Palmer has also put up points on LeBeau like few quarterbacks have, such as the 101 passer rating in Pittsburgh in '05 and the four touchdown passes at Heinz Field the next year.

"Yeah, it's frustrating. I don't want to say I resent anybody or a team, but it's just frustrating," Palmer said. "They've got what we want. But I don't see this game like that. I see it as a chance to get to 2-1 in a big division game."

The one person who sees the frustrations is his wife. Shaelyn Palmer, Carson says, doesn't have the luxury of escaping like he can escape the stadium and he admits, "I have a tough time leaving work at work. She knows why I'm stressed and I stress her out. She loves it when we win, believe me."

Much has changed, of course, at home, where the twins are turning seven months old. Palmer reports they are starting to toy with solid food and they're starting to think about getting mobile.

But maybe nothing has changed.

"I don't know. It's weird. I don't really feel any different," Palmer said. "I've got two more people that are my responsibility. But I've always had people depending on me, whether its teammates, coaches or family. What's two more?"

Shaelyn, the former USC goalie, is having an MVP season. While her husband is immersed in the Xs and Os of this most pivotal of seasons, she spends the majority of time with Fletch (the boy) and Elle (the girl).

(How great is Shaelyn? Her husband is a big Chevy Chase fan and always wanted to name a son "Fletch" from the 1985 movie of the same name. She resisted until a few days before she delivered. "She started to like it," Palmer said.)

"I think they know who that big guy is that takes care of them and changes their diapers a couple of days a week," Palmer said with a laugh. "They really light up when Shaelyn is around them. By the time I get home from work, a lot of times they're already in bed or I'm in my office studying and preparing."

It is the studying that he says has made him a better quarterback than the one from three and four years ago. He thinks there is no question that he is smarter and better prepared.

"My game has changed," Palmer said. "I think I understand how to control games, work the clock. Maybe I've lost some speed or quickness compared to when I was 23, but I understand why Chad is open on a particular route and not on another one, and if I see  the defense playing a Cover 6 or quarters, I know why now."

He's had the benefit of having the same quarterbacks coach in all seven of his seasons and Ken Zampese, Jordan Palmer says, is a major reason that his brother is looked upon as a model of quarterback mechanics. Zampese has been there in 2004 and 2005 for that stretch of nine straight triple-digit passer rating games and 14 of 15. He's also been there for the last 15 games, when Carson has had two.

"He takes so much on his shoulders," Zampese said. "The big thing with him is getting him to understand you're not going to win it all on one throw or one play. Now he's in a good place. He knows that Cedric (Benson) can run for some yards in a situation and his receivers are reliable. Or the defense is going to hold on a particular series. It changes a lot and I hope he keeps going like that."

Throw in a big-time punter and a top 10 defense with a running game, and suddenly the quarterback can be a manager instead of a highlight film always under pressure to produce perfection every couple of seconds.

Zampese agrees Palmer is a smarter player. One of the big reasons Palmer is holed up in the room at Indian Hill at night is because of Zampese's weekly homework assignments. Zampese gives him the game plan Tuesday night and Palmer must draw up all 70 to 80 pass plays and hand them in by the time he leaves the stadium Friday afternoon. And then there is the Saturday quiz.

"I think seeing it over and over again. Drawing it up. Repetition. All those things help you," Zampese said. "He's become very thorough. Very detailed."

Zampese and Palmer know the two picks Palmer had in Green Bay for 14 points were egregious and can't happen on Sunday against the Steelers. But CBS-TV analyst Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback who admits he's harsh on his fellow signal callers, isn't ready to knock him out of the elite.

"He's not razor sharp, but of course he can't be razor sharp," Simms said Friday as he prepared to announce Sunday's game. "He missed practice, he missed preseason games and he's dealing with an injury. That's a lot. But he made it through the first two games. I really expect him to be sharper this week than the first two games."

There has always been a buzz that Palmer never came back from the knee injury and stepped into his throws like he used to. Simms and another analyst, NFL Network's Brian Billick, don't buy it. As head coach of the Ravens, Billick was a victim of vintage Carson, a 24-point fourth quarter in Baltimore in 2004.

"I think what's changed for him are the people around him," Billick said. "He doesn't have the same tackles, the same backs. There's been a change in the cast. The other stuff, I don't think that has had as much as an effect as the new guys around him."

Simms sees nothing wrong with Palmer's mechanics. "Impeccable" he calls them.

"Almost classic. What you'd like to teach a lot of kids," Simms said. "He's not there yet and don't expect him to be. Just like Tom Brady. Of course he's not where he was. You don't miss a year of something that has so much feel and repetition. ... You don't miss time and preseason work and all that. ... Nobody's that good. Nobody just falls into place in the NFL."

There are not only the office hours, but time in the gym. This past Tuesday, before the game plan was ready, Palmer closeted himself for three to four hours. He rehabbed his ankle, went to a chiropractor, and got a deep tissue body massage. He turns 30 the day of the Bengals' last home game of the season, against Kansas City in Game 15 on Dec. 27, and he feels it. 

"I never want to miss a Wednesday practice, so you have to put that work in to take care of your body," he said. "I always heard it from the older guys. Jon Kitna. Willie Anderson. Kenny Watson. You can't expect your body to always do what it does at 23. I tell the young guys like Bernard Scott. You've got to start now."

If he's frustrated with what's gone on here, only Mrs. Palmer knows. Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason tried to vent for Palmer during training camp, saying he must feel like he did back in the day and that it had to be discouraging knowing nothing ever changes.

But Palmer is the anti-Boomer. If Esiason wears his heart on his sleeve, Palmer rolls it up like cigarettes in his sleeve.

"I love it here," Palmer said. "I love the team and the city. The thing that keeps me going is the feeling that was here in '05. The city was electric. You couldn't hear yourself in the stadium. It was a great feeling all the way around. I want to get that back."

Jordan Palmer says it wouldn't matter where Carson played. He wouldn't be happy until his team won a Super Bowl or was headed in the right direction.

"I know he likes this team," Jordan Palmer said. "He likes the receivers and how hard Ced runs and the defense is awesome. It's what he talked about back in the spring. It's a big year for everybody."

Signs of his growing leadership are everywhere and not just the yearly team blowout at his home every Friday before Labor Day. The one he advertises on the locker room bulletin board, "No coaches."

There was the "Seize The Moment" speech in front of the team back in March on the first day of conditioning. There was the bark in the huddle against Denver, and the high-profile role in HBO's Hard Knocks. Taking Scott aside during a game with a "Young fella," and telling the rookie running back how huge his big run was after he lost a fumble should become a staple of NFL Films for years to come.

There is Whitworth walking the locker from his stall to chat with Palmer about something on his mind before heading out to practice Friday morning.

"He's got more guys like him around him," Zampese said. "A guy like Laveranues Coles is a pro and Cedric is a guy doing it the right way and when all of a sudden you've got a guy like Andrew Whitworth that wants to say something, you've got guys that are one the same page. And that's not even counting the other side of the ball where you've got guys like Chris Crocker and Dhani Jones. It makes it easier for him to lead with guys like that."

It is Pittsburgh, a touchstone game, but even if he thought it was, he wouldn't say it.

"A chance to be 2-1," he said, still unflappable after all these years.

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