Wednesday January 6th, 2010

Carson Palmer sees the numbers. The passing yards fly by as if on magic carpets. The standard notions of how to win in the NFL -- run, stop the run -- are leather helmets now. Ten quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards. Thirty-two QBs combined for 104 300-yard passing games. Who went for 300 in a game this year? Who didn't?

"Sky was the limit for NFL quarterbacks this season,'' a Dallas Morning News headline proclaimed. All you needed was a football and four seconds, and you could fly.

Unless you were Palmer, two-time Pro Bowler, often mentioned in the same first class with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. The Cincinnati Bengals $100-million man, in what should be his prime, threw for 300 yards exactly once in '09. Seven times he didn't make it to 200. Former flyboy, grounded.

As the Bengals limp into the playoffs against the New York Jets on Saturday, reputation would suggest Cincinnati's biggest edge should be at QB. Seven-year vet Palmer over rookie Mark Sanchez. So why is the home team just a 2 ½-point favorite? Why are the Jets the sexy pick to move on?

For lots of reasons, many of them reasonable, the Bengals have Dilfer-ized their quarterback. In the golden age of passing, they've taken a pass. Palmer delivers a beautiful handoff. Right in the belly.

"We're a running football team,'' said Palmer. "It'd be nice to throw for 4,000 yards. But if you're better off running for 1,300 because that's what wins games, that's what matters.''

Give Palmer an A-plus in ego management. And given Cincinnati's opponent Saturday, the Bengals don't fear a shootout. The Jets' defense is beastly, but Sanchez scares no one. And yet the best teams throw the ball, effectively and often. Barely two years ago, No. 9 was on his way toward being the passer everyone thought he'd be when the Bengals took him No. 1 overall out of USC. Now, he's a guy with an average QB Rating (83.6), whose yards per attempt (6.6) is 18th in the league.

"His numbers just are not good,'' says Kerry J. Byrne, the main numbers cruncher behind the Web site ColdHardFootballFacts.com, and also an SI.com contributor. Byrne uses stats to make sense of what's happening on the field. In evaluating quarterbacks, Byrne prizes QB Rating, yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Palmer lags in all three.

"His passer rating is a career low [for a full season],'' says Byrne. "His average yards per attempt is not winning football.''

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis decided in the offseason to take away Palmer's six-shooter. The Bengals passing game had been declining since '05, the last time they made the playoffs. By last year, it was living on rep. Here's what Lewis saw in July:

• A young and inexperienced offensive line; • Palmer coming off the second serious injury of his career; • A receiving corps that had replaced a Pro Bowl wideout, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, with a declining Laveranues Coles; • A mystery in third receiver Chris Henry; • The AFC North in November and December.

Lewis decided he'd take his chances with a good running game and a defense that had the potential to be solid. He would play more like 1969 than 2009, and if that meant clipping his quarterback's pricey wing, so be it. Three yards and a turfburn.

Who can argue? The Bengals won more than they lost for the second time in 19 years, went 6-0 in the division and have a home playoff game. The offensive line blocks well for Cedric Benson (1,251 yards in 13 games) and its lack of athleticism has not been exposed by having Palmer throw 35 times a game.

Meanwhile Henry, the Bengals' only deep threat, died tragically last month. They get nothing from their tight ends and Coles' decline has been steeper than anyone expected. That leaves Chad Ochocinco to battle double- and occasional triple-teams.

Go ahead, Nine, throw for 300.

"When you don't have the vertical threat, because you lost [Henry], you have a young receiver in Andre [Caldwell]. . . we don't go four or five receivers deep, six receivers, like New Orleans,'' said Palmer.

And yet, when he has had to throw, Palmer has been good enough to make you wonder why Lewis hasn't let him do it more. The bird still flies when Lewis opens the cage. Palmer threw for 314 yards and two TDs in a 27-24 loss at San Diego a month ago. He led long, late scoring drives against Denver, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore and Kansas City.

"I'd like to throw the ball a lot if that will help us win,'' Palmer said Tuesday. "In some instances, it would. In most instances, no. [We] go into a game expecting our defense is going to hold a team to 17 points. We get 20, we win. It's about winning, especially when you're a quarterback. You're judged on wins and losses, not yards or completion percentage or touchdown passes.''

Don't expect Lewis to open the cage Saturday. The guy who should be Cincinnati's best chance at winning will channel Trent Dilfer again. Jets coach Rex Ryan is a crazy man, whose team plays defense in his image. New York will put eight players on or close to the line, tell cornerback Darrelle Revis to shut Ochocinco's mouth (again) and make a passing Palmer run like his career is on fire.

No, the time to let the bird fly this year has passed by the Bengals. They are who they are: Ohio State, 1969. The greatest throwing year in NFL history did not connect through Cincinnati. Erstwhile elite QB Carson Palmer will hand off a lot Saturday. The result will speak for itself.

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