Lewis hints at, but won't confirm, QB change

During his rookie season, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, the first player chosen in the 2003 draft, was the ninth highest-paid player in the NFL, in terms of total compensation.

Updated: February 21, 2004, 11:59 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- During his rookie season, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, the first player chosen in the 2003 draft, was the NFL's ninth highest-paid player in terms of total compensation.

And the former Southern California star never made it off the sideline in a regular-season game, logging zero snaps.

That seems about to change, however, as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis strongly hinted here Friday that Palmer will replace Jon Kitna as the starter when the club convenes for its first offseason minicamp on May 7. Lewis had announced several weeks ago that he intended to name a starter before the minicamp but suggested he had not yet made up his mind about which quarterback would work with the first unit.

While he stopped shy Friday of confirming that Palmer will be elevated to the top spot on the depth chart, it didn't exactly require a fortune teller to read through the tea leaves and discern that a change is imminent.

"Whoever our quarterback is going to be, he's going to be our quarterback until he's causing us not to win football games," Lewis said. "Just as it was last year. I'll make that clear to everyone involved. I don't want to have our football team go down that road [where it appears] we're losing games because of one person. It's not fair to all of those other guys. Obviously, as coaches, you have to do things that guys can do successfully to keep you from losing. More importantly, you don't want to have one guy lead you down that path."

The quarterback situation, because of reasons financial and otherwise, is a conundrum of sorts for Lewis and the Bengals. Kitna started every game in 2003 and led the Bengals to an 8-8 record, the team's first non-losing season since 1996.

The seven-year veteran completed 324 of 520 passes for 3,591 yards, with 26 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and an efficiency rating of 87.4. Entering the final month of the season, with Cincinnati poised for a playoff run, Kitna was actually being mentioned as a potential MVP candidate.

But the Bengals lost three of their last four games, including the final two contests, and Kitna did not play particularly well down the stretch.

Compounding the situation is Palmer's contract. Between his signing bonus and his base salary, he earned slightly more than $11 million in 2003 and, at that compensation level, Cincinnati can't afford to keep him on the bench.

Since the 1970 merger, just one first-round quarterback, Chad Pennington of the New York Jets, went through his initial two seasons without starting a game. Lewis said that he feels his team is now mature enough to handle a quarterback turnover. He noted, as well, that the club cannot afford to stunt the growth of Palmer.

"Our guys are going to have to deal with that at some point," he said. "And Jon is well aware of that."

Kitna is entering the final season of a four-year contract and is scheduled to have a base salary of $3.375 million and a cap charge of $4.375 million. He has said at various times in the offseason that he would consider reworking his deal if he isn't the starter.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.