'Why not us?'

Posted: 9:25 p.m.

BALTIMORE - One of the biggest Bengals fans of all is No. 9 himself.

On the eve of his sixth season that has been steeped in sound bite controversy the second the last one ended, sauteed by fan uneasiness, and soaked in the biggest overhaul during his tenure, Carson Palmer is thankfully talking about football again.

And winning football.

"If I were a fan, I'd be mad because I'm a fan of us," Palmer said one day last week. "I feel what they're feeling.

"We've got as good as shot as anybody. That's the great thing about this league. There's always hope. We've got two good receivers, a great offensive line, really good running backs with the possibility of greatness and an awesome defensive coordinator that doesn't put up with anything. Two good young corners. Why not us? Really, why not us?"

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Palmer

The disappointment runs deep for Palmer. The devastating knee injury at the high water mark of his NFL career in the Wild Card game in the first week of 2006. Then the three straight losses at the end of the '06 season when the Bengals needed only one win to make the playoffs again.

"I understand where the fans are coming from. We had somewhat of a decent year and they expected greatness to come, and it didn't," Palmer said. "We got worse two years afterward. It's extremely frustrating. We didn't do it right. I don't think a number of things were handled right. I understand (the fans) because I'm a fan of watching our defense play. I'm a fan of watching Chris (Perry) run with the ball.

"If we don't get grounded up throughout the season, if we get taken care of for 16 weeks and feel fresh in games and stay healthy, we've got as good as chance as anybody."

The Bengals are just happy to be on the field Sunday playing a game that counts after an offseason straight out of VH1.

It began with Palmer wondering if some coaching changes were needed. Then it careened into Chad Ocho Cinco's trade rants, then bubbled into the sagas enveloping Chris Henry and Odell Thurman before a Monday Night-like minicamp with Ocho eventually making peace with everything but his ankle.

There was peace, but not peace in our time as the Bengals continued to be stapled to the ESPN crawl.

Chris Henry came back. Rudi Johnson got miffed at trade talk and got cut. And Big Willie not only ended his 12-year run as the team spokesman, but Opening Day finds him on the Ravens sidelines.

"Just life as a Bengal," said left tackle Levi Jones. "There's so much stuff that doesn't matter and gets talked about. Now it's here. The only thing that really matters is what guys do going out there on that field."

"A lot of junk has gone on and I think we're ready to show we've got what it takes to be a top team," said guard Andrew Whitworth, Jones' partner on the left side.

Jones and Whitworth are emblematic of where this is now compared to that day Palmer lay writhing on the ground in pain and Ocho exploded at halftime. A total of 35 players on the roster weren't there that day, including Whitworth.

Jones was there and now has a three-year perspective when asked if the Bengals can handle the emotional baggage of the man he calls "our mentor" (Anderson) on the Baltimore sideline.

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Jones

"Emotion? What is this? The Lifetime Channel?" Jones asked. "This is football. We're football players. Tough, physical, and we go play no matter what's going on."

Not only that, but more than half the roster (27 players) wasn't here for the '06 fold. As Palmer says, "Fresh rejuvenation," and tackle John Thornton, in his sixth season now the senior Bengal on defense, says the tumult of the last week won't affect this team.

"This team is too young. An hour after Willie, Rudi and Deltha got cut, a lot of guys were probably worried about their own jobs," Thornton said. "It's how this team has evolved. We've gotten younger. We're relying on young guys. It should be better. That's the plan. I don't think ownership wants to go the other way. It's time for these guys to play."

In the middle of the transition stands Palmer, as always, cool in the pocket and ready to continue his role as a captain for the second straight year.

"I hate it when people say, 'This is your team,' " Palmer said. "It's everyone's team. I'm not selfish. If I have to speak up, I'll speak up."

Palmer has no qualms about conferring with head coach Marvin Lewis and owner Mike Brown if there is an issue that concerns him. But it's clear he doesn't like to do it often.

"To me, being a leader doesn't mean going into the owner and complaining," Palmer said. "That's not me. And Mike's been great to me. We've got a good relationship, he's asked me my opinion of 'SC guys in the draft and stuff like that. And I feel like I can go in and talk to Marvin."

Palmer's real influence is on the field, where it has grown so much that quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese mentioned to him the other day just how much was on his plate.

And he loves it.

"I've got as much freedom as you can have. In the run game. No-huddle. Protections. I told Coach Zampese, 'It's my sixth year. I'm comfortable to do it. Let's do it,' " Palmer said. "We've got running backs that can handle that. We've got receivers that on a running play, if they see it going to the other side, they can get a cutoff block, dig out a safety in the box or come down and crack a linebacker.

"We're in a situation where I can get to four different run plays in one play and that gives us a better chance."

Palmer is coming off his worst season since his first year as a starter with 20 interceptions and he's talking about trying not to force it and getting out of the pocket a little earlier if nothing is there to get at least a yard or two on first down.

"Sometimes trying to stay in there and waiting until the last possible second hurts me," he said. "If you can get to second-and-nine, you've got a chance to make it third-and-two, and third-and-three and you can run or play-action. If it's third-and-five, you've got to pass, and this league is all about being successful on third down."

After watching reams of '07 film, Palmer knows why the passing game was so herky-jerky.

"That's what is going to happen when they're dropping seven in coverage and playing Cover 2," Palmer said. 'You have to run the ball against defenses that do that. We struggled doing that. I think we've gotten drastically better in that throughout camp. Getting us in the right runs at the right times and putting us in situations where you have a chance to be as successful as possible on that certain play. It's something I'm happy with and our offensive line is ready."

Palmer seemed to be looking for some changes when he left for the offseason last year and he has been extremely happy with the addition of tight end Ben Utecht ("You couldn't ask for a better move," he said) and he's looking for Perry to add some speed in the backfield that hasn't been there since '05.

And he thinks the Zimmer hire has boosted the offense as well as the defense.

"The guy's awesome," Palmer said. "If you can't do it, he'll put somebody in there who will."

Through the tumult and transition to reach this Opening Day, Palmer remains as resolute as any franchise quarterback and as optimistic as any fan.

"We've got a chance to be as good as anybody," he said. "Point blank."

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