Posted: 6:15 p.m.
Thanks to a deadly brew of a new scheme that gets him out of pocket more along with harder run fakes, a more intense in-season workout regimen that includes a moonwalk, and downright experience, Carson Palmer is literally moving up in the NFL quarterback rankings as his team moves into the playoff picture.
After Sunday's career day in which he bobbed to his highest passer rating ever (146.7), weaved to his second-best completion day (83.3 percent), and rope-a-doped to a second-best five touchdown passes, the mobility Palmer brought to the Cleveland and Baltimore victories is taking root.
No, he's not exactly turning into "Carryin' Carson" like some latter day Fran "The Scram" Tarkenton or any of the other fabled NFL scramblers. But the pigeons are no longer talking aim at him seven steps back in the pocket, either.
After Wednesday morning's practice, Palmer, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week, chalked up the scheme as the major reason for his coming out of the pocket party this season. It was evident again Sunday against the Bears on the scramble nine-yard touchdown throw to Chris Henry on third down to open the scoring (his third red-zone scramble TD of the season), as well as a 14-yard rollout pass to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and an eight-yard touchdown pass to The Ocho off play-action in which he pumped, moved a few steps, and gunned it to the pylon.
Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese doesn't think it's so much scheme because he says when it comes to Palmer's release points, "We're not doing anything differently," but he does credit Palmer's own adjustments in making it part of his game.
"You saw that mobility on his college tape but it kind of dried up here," Zampese said Wednesday. "But now he's more comfortable in the offense, he's had success with it, and he's seen other guys do it, too. You make it part of your game when your mind decides you can make it part of your game."
Palmer also says he feels better physically. His preseason sprained ankle appears to have healed, his torn UCL in his throwing elbow is long gone, and the only other ailment, a sprained left thumb that he says is going to get fixed with postseason surgery, doesn't hurt his legs.
"It's not like you're taking a bunch of sacks and getting hit every time you throw the ball like our opponents are," Palmer said. "You feel a lot better in games and you can move around better. It comes within our system and philosophy. Clean pockets. A lot of times you feel good to run. Coverage dictates to run. But a lot of times there aren't seams to hit. And we've had good seams and we've walled off the edges and got a chance to get to the outside."
With age 30 knocking on the door (Dec. 27), Palmer has also been in the weight room more than he's ever been during the season as strength coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver shepherd him through a variety of flexibility drills aimed at the lower body, starting with his back.
"He always worked hard at home and here in the offseason," Morton said. "I think now he's trying to do a better job of maintaining more of that during the season with a lot of mobility work. More so than in the past. He does a lot of extra work.
"We're trying to keep his hips and lower back flexible. He's always done extra conditioning, but this year we're trying to do lower-impact things, so we're doing more resistant-band running as opposed to just sprints and sled pushes."
The Bengals' new baby, the zero gravity treadmill, looks like something Neil Armstrong used to train for the first lunar stroll and it's been a godsend for Palmer because he can run on it while not pounding the ankle or his reconstructed knee.
"It's a device that allows us to put the player into a lower gravity environment from the waist down," Morton said. "We can adjust to what percentage of body weight they're going to run at. You can set it for half your body weight. It's like walking on the moon. That's how we were able to get his ankle back, while saving wear and tear on the lower body."
That may have been one small step for the Bengals, but the giant leap for Palmer came when he was able to click with his receivers on the improv stuff.
"We've got a really good group of guys that as soon as the quarterback breaks the pocket, guys get open," he said. "We've had pockets that were washed down and (I) had chances to get to the edges and guys got open."
After being mired in the lower half of league passing early in the season, Palmer is now fifth in touchdowns (13), eighth in completions, eighth in touchdown percentage and 15th in rating (89.2).
Palmer credits the tinkering of guys like Zampese and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
"New stuff. New protections. New angles," Palmer said. "When the quarterback is always at seven yards deep, right behind the center, it makes it real easy to pin your ears back and come after him. We do a good job setting up play-actions and boots and nakeds (a form of bootleg) and all those things and get on edges. Its different stuff we put in this year."
Play-action was a killer for the Bears last Sunday because the Bengals ran it so well. But Palmer says the Bengals aren't using much more run-fakes than they've used in the past.
"It's a different kind," he said. "It's more hard-sell."
All of which has helped make him a better bet on the run.