- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Whether it was moving training camp to Kentucky or nightmares about Akili Smith, the Bengals finally got it right. Kentucky is horse-breeders' turf. It's sacred ground in which thoroughbreds are trained and champions are taken to stud.
But that's where the Bengals had been getting it wrong. They'd take studs and lead them to slaughter. From David Klingler to Smith to others, the Bengals were the destroyers of franchise quarterbacks. They rushed them into the starting lineup as rookies to be the savior but there wasn't enough talent around to save them. They haven't been to the playoffs since 1990.
Enter Marvin Lewis, whose career was built around breaking down opposing quarterbacks his defenses. He drafted Carson Palmer and let him sit through a season like a thoroughbred in training. This yearling wasn't racing. Watching Palmer practice in Georgetown, Ky., isn't that much different than watching Smarty Jones working with a trainer in the Kentucky blue grass. It's peaceful. It's serene. It's pretty to watch.
Now well-schooled in the book learning of the NFL, Palmer drops back, makes a quick read and fires a pass like a laser beam. No one knows yet whether he's ready to handle the rigors of being a successful pro quarterback. The regular season is the test. But what's so unlike the Bengals is that Palmer is being given every chance to succeed instead of being rushed into failure.
"Akili had a holdout that hurt him, and the supporting cast around Carson is a lot different than it was for Akili," Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson said. "First, he has a veteran quarterback in Jon Kitna to lean on and support who isn't trying to get his job. Jon is not mad about the situation. And Marvin Lewis keeps preaching to us to pick up the play around him."
Finally, the Bengals get it. It's not the quarterback who makes the team, it's the team that makes the quarterback. Face it, the Bengals rallied around Kitna last year to have their first non-losing season since 1990, an encouraging 8-8 start for Lewis. It became Kitna's team, and they all respect him. But, Palmer's the future and he needed to play. Throughout the offseason, Lewis kept telling the Bengals to pick up their game because they relied too much on Kitna doing everything.
"On a Marvin Lewis coached team, I don't think the quarterback will have to be the center of attention," Anderson said. "In the past, people come in and say he's the franchise quarterback. Don't put it on a young who hasn't done it already. As long as we keep up our play and do better, I think we will be okay."
Palmer is in a much better situation than Klingler and Smith in terms of the talent around him. The Bengals are solid at tackle with Anderson on the right and Levi Jones on the left. The receiving corps offers plenty of options. Chad Johnson is the stud who can break big plays and be a Pro Bowler. Peter Warrick is the perfect slot receiver who knows how to get open short. Flanker Kelley Washington is still a work in progress but he stretches the field and goes across the middle.
Sure, it's practice but Palmer couldn't look any better. The offseason allowed him to bulk up. Instead of being 230 coming out of college, he's a muscular 245 pounds. His dropbacks are smooth. His release is amazingly fast. He's confident. Most young Bengal quarterbacks in their second training camp have a fearful look in the eyes and are either trying to duck or cover.
"Carson is showing how sure of himself he is coming out of the huddle," Lewis said. "He's authoritative. He knows what is supposed to happen. He knows what his reads are. He knows what will check us out of this play and how to communicate it. You see more growth."
The examples are many. Palmer drops back and spots Johnson on a slant pass. Palmer tests his quick release and Johnson, who hits the slant quicker than just about anyone in football, is off to the end zone. Another time, Washington crossed the field and Palmer placed the ball near the sideline between two defenders. Palmer is big. He's strong. His release is quick. His passes are accurate.
But this isn't a game. This is practice. No one knows how this will translate during the regular season, but the Bengals are encouraged. So is Palmer.
"The game is so fast when you come from college," Palmer said. "It takes a while to figure out when you need to fire one in there or when you need to put little touch on it to put over a linebacker and underneath a safety. It takes a while to figure when you need to throw a slant hard or loft it in there."
Palmer has had a year to visualize how to make a play work instead of visualizing two grunting defenders slamming him into the ground. Palmer basically redshirted his first year. He studied. On Thursdays last season, the coaching staff put in a six-play series after practice in which the defense blitzed and Palmer reacted. On Saturdays, Palmer presented some of the tape work. He was more intern than franchise quarterback, a humbling experience that helped.
"Carson has a very good grasp of the big picture," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "Some of the little pieces are missing, but he's got a grasp of the big picture, a little different from most rookies I've been around. They have a tendency to hold the ball. Carson has a tendency to get it out too fast. He has great anticipation and we have to slow it down. He'll see it and, boom, the ball is out."
The thing most noticeable about Palmer is how the ball travels when he throws it. He puts so much spin on the ball that even his fastballs are catchable. Receivers don't complain about stubbed fingers or bruises in the middle of their chest.
"The worst thing I can do is try to go out there and try to prove my worth or try to prove myself trying to throw the big ball," Palmer said. "I have to be patient and take what the defense gives me. I'll have to dink it around. I'm sure the crowd just wants to see me wing it down the sidelines. But when you try to prove your worth, it makes you force things and force a bad decision."
In that regard, Palmer knows he's in a touchy situation. He takes over the league's No. 13 offense. His mandate is not to screw it up. Rudi Johnson takes over fulltime for Corey Dillon. Where Dillon tried to improvise because of his immense talents, Johnson runs textbook plays. He runs plays that are practiced, so Palmer won't be surprised with the look of the running game.
One downfall could be turnovers. If quarterback turnovers lead to losses, Palmer understands Lewis might have to "turn over" the job to Kitna.
"We tell him, `Let's not have a foul ball,"' Lewis said. "If we take the shot down the field, let's compete it. In managing the game, we don't want him to do things that we can't do. If we have a bad play, don't try to make it worse."
Following an efficient morning practice, Palmer was asked to reflect on what might have happened had he started as a rookie.
"You don't know," Palmer said. "I could have led us to the Super Bowl or could have gone 0-13, who knows? Looking back, I'm very blessed. I'm honored to be in this position. I had a chance to sit and learn."
When it comes to a franchise quarterback, maybe this franchise is finally growing up.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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