Posted: 3:10 p.m.
With the mandatory minicamp set for this weekend, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer huddled with Bengals.com earlier this week to talk about his career, his team, and his hopes for 2009.
With his throwing elbow healthy, Palmer fires out his signature brand of optimism and says the overhauled roster has bred a changed atmosphere where, "We expect to win."
How different is his team? Remember the OT loss to the Steelers in the finale that cost the Bengals a playoff berth on the last day of 2006? They are 11-20-1 since. But only six starters that day are still with the team.
GH: I saw a recent list in The Sporting News compiled by a panel of former NFL scouts that named the 25 players they expected to be the most dominant in the league this year. You weren't on it. Does that surprise you?
CP: No. That's the way this game works. If you're injured they forget about you. You have to stay healthy and win in order to get that respect from your peers throughout the league.
GH: You were hurt last year, but even in '07 the team had a losing season (7-9) and you threw 20 interceptions and took criticism.
CP: It's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. It doesn't matter what you did two or three years ago. Look at (Donovan) McNabb and (Daunte) Culpepper. McNabb got benched and Culpepper was a runnerup MVP candidate and was out of the league for awhile. It's really what have you done for me lately? I haven't been good lately and healthy and our team hasn't been good lately.
GH: I go back to the last three games of '06 that you guys lost. After you had won four straight. In the games you've quarterbacked since, the record is 7-16. Obviously all the reasons aren't on you, but is there anything you can put your finger on?
CP: You need to play good all year. It's not about a streak here or a stretch there. I haven't done that. We need to stay fresh at the end of the year. That's a huge thing. We haven't been fresh in the middle of the year. We need to be fresh at the end of the year. That's important to you as players. That's just not always the way it shakes down.
GH: You also went to the Pro Bowl in '06. How close are you to getting that form back?
CP: I think I'll be in better shape than I was that year. I'll be stronger, but more importantly just where my head is. I've learned so much since '06 and seen so much. I've gained confidence in a number of areas. I've gained poise in a number of areas and just knowledge of certain situations. So much of this game and playing the position I play is played with your head. It's not about how far you can throw the ball and how fast you can run. It's about winning games with your head and your decisions. I've drastically gained ground in that area.
GH: I remember the miserable game against Arizona in '07 with the four picks in a home game you have to win. And, again, this is not putting all the blame on you. I think in that game Chad had a red-zone fumble and the defense came up with no turnovers. And, to me, that was the perfect example of how the lack of a running game closes up the passing lanes. What do you take away from a game like that?
CP: Looking back on that game, there were two really bad decisions. Making poor judgments. One ball bounced off a receiver's hands and one ball got taken away from a player. But you can't make poor decisions. Especially when they turn into seven points for the other team. In that game there were two bad decisions I tried to make something out of nothing. Tried to make too big of a play instead of getting off the field with a punt and getting another possession.
GH: I guess when the running game isn't working, you feel like you have to do something.
CP: When the running game is struggling, you really have to be 100 percent. You can't have any mental lapses or have any bad decisions because just one bad decision is magnified and that decision can change a game.
GH: Do you sense that maybe you've fallen off the national media's radar?
CP: Yeah, but I don't know how much I was ever on the radar. But really, to me, I could care less, first of all. Of course you always want to be respected by your peers. But as far as the media is concerned that's something I'm not really concerned about. I play for respect from my peers and from coaches and organizations and players. Not from writers or anything like that.
Like I said, I haven't played as a top 25 player lately. I wasn't on the field last year and the year before I wasn't a top 25 player if you look at the statistics.
GH: Do you think you just didn't have as good a team around you in '07 and '08?
CP: We've been bad for awhile. We realize that. As a team, we understand that and what it takes to fix that. There is just one thing that fixes that. That's work. It's not about doing anything different other than working a lot harder and always staying focused and always keeping that fight to win and believing you can win. That's something we've gotten away from and need to get back to.
GH: Look at the changes from the starting lineup in the last game of the '06 season that if you won, you went to the playoffs. There are only five starters on offense from that game's first snap (Palmer, wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry, right guard Bobbie Williams, and tight end Reggie Kelly) and two on defense (SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.)
CP: It's a new team. A new defensive coordinator. It's just different. There's nothing to say, just that it's different.
GH: You don't know if it's going to be better.
CP: Oh, it's definitely better. When you lose, there's a losing atmosphere. We've got so many new guys coming from different teams. You need to create a championship atmosphere as a team because it's not always created around you. There's not the same feel with guys coming from Dallas or other places and we've got guys that can create that atmosphere. To get past the losing atmosphere where it's accepted. 'Well, it's who we've been.' That's not here anymore. We expect to be good. We expect to win. I can't say enough about having that type of attitude.
GH: I guess that comes from new guys like Crocker, Tank, Roy Williams. And young guys like Whit and Peko that have become more of a factor.
CP: We've got a much more mature group than we've ever had. Not necessarily years in the league, but just a mature mindset. A business-like mindset.
GH: And except for Chad, you've got basically all new receivers.
CP: You go with really two guys. Mix in a tight end every now and again, but really we've had two stable guys for three, four, five years. Well, one of them is different than the last couple (Ochocinco) of years and one of them (T.J. Houshmandzadeh) is gone. Really, Chad's a new player. He hasn't looked like this in awhile.
GH: Is that legit?
CP: Yeah. He looks great. But then you have so many new guys trying to find other spots, plus Antonio (Chatman) is so reliable. We've got good players, but we need to find the three or four guys who get reps and get the work.
GH: Chad, Coles, Henry, and Caldwell?
CP: Antonio deserves to be right in there, too. He's one of the better guys we have.
GH: So you think this is a better team than the one in '06 that had a shot to get into the playoffs?
CP: I don't know. That's the thing, too, about where we are. You have no idea until you get out of training camp what kind of team you are. There's always a feeling going into training camp. Last year there was a bad feeling going into training camp. This year we've got a great feeling going into training camp, but it's how you come out of training camp and how you start those first couple of games of the season.
GH: The bad feeling right away, wasn't it just the sense no one was on the same page?
CP: Last year our starting tailback (Rudi Johnson) and both our starting receivers didn't practice at all. We were a little rusty going into the season. You could just tell. You go into training camps and you go out of training camps, and there was this terrible feeling. There was no confidence. We hadn't gelled together as a team. It was a bad feeling. It didn't get talked about, but everybody felt it.
GH: How much more can your body take? Injuries have cut short three of your five starting seasons.
CP: When I blew my knee out against Pittsburgh, we were one of the least sacked teams. Our protection was great. It was just bad luck. There's only so much you can do when the guy falls on you in the wrong spot. It's part of the game.
GH: The bad karma last year as far as protection was pretty clear when you broke your nose in the preseason.
CP: There are some years bad things happen. When you don't get touched all year and a guy falls on your knee when he's getting blocked, there's nothing you can do about those things. The protection is not going to be an issue this year. We've got guys that expect for me not to get touched and that's all you can ask for as a quarterback.
GH: How is your new center, Kyle Cook?
CP: Good. Not a lot of experience, but hard working, dedicated, athletic, smart. He can do it all.
GH: Do you think this team is over the Chad thing? A) because he came in early and ready and B) because the team is more mature?
CP: He won't distract us this year. I think he'll be less of a distraction. He'll have less of a mindset of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He's more about winning. He understands what winning can do for him and this team has dealt with plenty of distractions. We'll be fine.
GH: It seems like Chad respects you. He really seems to notice what you say about him.
CP: I don't say a lot, but what I say I mean. I think when I do say something I'm not just running my mouth. He knows I'm saying something because I have something that needs to be said. We have a great working relationship. We don't go out at night to the clubs together. When we're here, it's about work.
I love that fact about him. When he's here and he hits the field, he's about getting better and about being the best he can be. You take the good with the bad with him. He's so productive; he's so good when he has that mindset. He can talk and run his mouth and send Pepto Bismol to a team. You've got to take the good with the bad. There are things you look at and kind of say, 'All right, that didn't need to be done,' but when he shows up for practice and runs every route 100 miles an hour and is in the right place at the right time doing the right things, you accept that because he is productive.
GH: I know you're not a numbers guy. All quarterbacks are judged by wins, anyway, but I'm sure you want to cut down on the interceptions.
CP: There are a number of things about picks. Sometimes it's bad luck. A screen pass gets tipped or blocked. A couple of balls I had to T.J. go off hands. But a majority of them were bad decisions that I've started working on this offseason and will continue to work on in training camp. Not force things. Because when you force things, not only do you put your defense in tough situations, you also take touches away from your offense.
Take the checkdown for four yards on third and eight, get another possession later, and get the ball back in the field position battle. Those are little things, patience, that I've sat back and watched and understood more from watching quarterbacks and how they play and keep putting it in my game.
GH: Anybody in particular?
CP: No, just from what I see on film. From watching last year. I got a chance to sit back and watch, which is something I haven't done.
GH: You must be a different guy than you were last year. The (five-month-old) twins are new, too.
CP: Yeah, you learn as you go. You react to different situations differently. It's part of being a dad. Especially a first-time dad.
GH: Any stats in mind?
CP: 16 wins.
GH: The closing window of Carson Palmer who turns 30 in December. Do you think about that?
CP: Definitely, definitely. It's different for quarterbacks because you can play longer. You don't have to run and react. I don't know how much longer I've got. Nobody knows. I could play one game next year. I could play 20 next year and for the next four, five years. But you've got to take advantage of the opportunities you get. Put everything you got into it. Every week, every day, every game, every month, every season because you don't know much you've got left.
GH: Do you think this team is headed in the right direction?
CP: You never know until you get out of training camp and the season starts. Who knows how good we can be? Who knows how bad we can be? The good thing is I like where our confidence is right now and where our mindset is right now because we're headed as a team, as far as the players are concerned, in the right direction.
GH: What is so different from the minicamp compared to the voluntary workouts?
CP: It's just more practices in less time.
GH: Does that mean we'll see the pitch count?
CP: Maybe. We haven't talked about it yet.