Palmer, Ochocinco are back in harmony
CINCINNATI -- For the first time in a couple of years, a positive twinkle was seen in Carson Palmer's eyes.
Palmer, speaking on the first day of Bengals minicamp, looked as comfortable speaking about his team as he usually seems when he's throwing long, accurate passes with ease. That hasn't been the case for Palmer in recent years. In 2006, he was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. In 2007, he suffered through a seven-win season plagued by embarrassing off-the-field problems of several immature teammates. Last year was personal torture because of Chad Ochocinco's trade requests and the worries about a 70 percent tear of a nerve in Palmer's right elbow.
Having been through hell and back, Palmer on Thursday looked as positive as I've seen him in years. Quarterbacks and coaches are usually the voices of football franchises. For years, everyone kept seeing the face of disappointment in Palmer. His troubles reminded me of Jim Plunkett's early years in New England. Plunkett was physically beaten from years of hits. Until Thursday, Palmer, aside from the injuries, had looked worn from years of explaining the frustrations around him.
Palmer liked what he saw on the practice field Thursday. Ochocinco was in phenomenal shape -- physically and mentally. The day before, Ochocinco had sprinted through 14 40-yard dashes as a conditioning test and felt so strong that he jumped in with the second group of players and did 14 more. Chris Henry, one of the troubled Bengals of the past, was stronger and faster, reviving comparisons to a young Randy Moss. Laveranues Coles, not known for his speed, caught a deep pass down the right side.
Visions of the 2005 offense that went to the playoffs flashed through Palmer's mind. But even more important was that Palmer was in a much better place in relation to his offense. This is his team now. Before, he had to ride the emotional roller coaster of the egos of the skilled players and suffer daily whiplash.
The locker room and huddles aren't totally quiet, but there is a different feel to this team. Coles is a quiet guy. So is starting halfback Cedric Benson. And Palmer seems to have a good handle on Ochocinco.
An example: Ochocinco recently announced that he was moving into Palmer's San Diego house to catch up on the routes the receiver missed while he trained in Los Angeles this offseason.
"I just told him unless he's picking up the mortgage for most of July and August, he can't stay," Palmer said. "He's not living with me."
Had that happened, Palmer would have invoked a non-Twitter policy in the house, which would have driven the NFL's most prolific tweeter crazy. The plan is for the two players to link up in either San Diego or Orange County before the start of camp.
It was clear Thursday that Ochocinco is back in the good graces of his quarterback. Despite their successes, the two have battled through the years, and last season was the worst. Ochocinco, then the always quotable Chad Johnson, spent his offseason plotting for a trade. Though his body ended up in Cincinnati for the season, his mind didn't. The lack of work during the offseason resulted in a 53-catch, 540-yard season, the worst of his career.
Palmer knew at the start of last year's training camp that the season was going to be a disaster. It was hard to tell what hurt Palmer more -- the 4-11-1 season or the elbow problems. Palmer might not tweet about his No. 1 receiver, but he is happy to announce that No. 85 is the No. 1 option for him.
"I'm happy he's here," Palmer said. "I'm happy with the energy he's bringing and the enthusiasm he's bringing. It's all funneled and channeled in the right direction."
Ochocinco trained with boxers in the offseason. He ran 40s as though he were a rookie again preparing for the NFL scouting combine. Ochocinco said he had 4.3 40 speed coming out of college. At 31, he believes he can run a 4.3 now.
"I'm in stupid shape," Ochocinco said. "Being able to go nine rounds in that gym would be equivalent of going 100 40s. I'm not being funny. Ask a boxer. I keep trying to get people to understand the type of shape I'm in right now. Nobody gets it."
Palmer and the Bengals get it.
"Chad showed up at a couple of the OTAs when he didn't have to, and his attitude has been good," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "He's a little embarrassed about the results from last year. He knows why it happened to him. He's obviously in good shape."
Ochocinco says he has his swagger back. He plans on putting together his checklist of 16 cornerbacks he's going to face this year. He plans to beat them all.
"I'm telling all 16 teams ahead of time that regardless of what they do, I'm telling you I'm gong to win those matchups," Ochocinco said. "That lets me know where my game is. Regardless of what they are going to do, I'm going to beat it. The swagger is back."
And as if to prove he'd regained his swagger, Ochocinco predicted the Bengals would make the playoffs.
"It's going to be a great year," Ochocinco said. "We're going to the playoffs. I can come out on a limb and say what we're going to do."
To a man, the Bengals' skill players believe this might be their most talented edition. Sure, the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh was huge, but Coles is a steady hand to work the flanker position on the other side of Ochocinco. Andre Caldwell is going to evolve into the slot receiver in three-receiver sets. The Bengals might have to go to more four-receiver sets because Henry looks so good.
"I don't think there is an NFL team that has more speed and depth at receiver than we do," Ochocinco said. "Everybody has speed. We are literally a baby Olympic team. We're going to have a lot more downfield throws."
Though Palmer and Ochocinco may not agree on living accommodations, they are together in the plan to win games this season.
"We've always had good dialogue and working situations," Palmer said. "He's had some negative things to say, whether it's been to the media or certain coaches. We do get frustrated with each other and frustrated with certain things that are going on. That's the kind of relationship you have to have with your go-to guy, the guy that is 35 to 40 percent of the offense and I'm the one that's having to throw to him. We're going to have bumps in the road. But we've always come back together and figured things out."
Palmer and Ochocinco won't be tweeting together, but they plan on having a sweet time this year.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.