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Here Comes the NFL With training camps opening, it's time to get the answers to some big questions

July 26, 2004
July 26, 2004

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July 26, 2004

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Here Comes the NFL With training camps opening, it's time to get the answers to some big questions

1. Can Carson Palmer cut it in CINCINNATI?

This is an article from the July 26, 2004 issue Original Layout

The inaugural Carson Palmer Open, a festive charity golf
tournament held in Newport Beach, Calif., last month, had
beautiful hostesses, cocktails available at every other hole and
a gourmet spread. Players admired the majestic mansions perched
on the cliffs above Pelican Hills Golf Course. Amid this
frivolity Palmer, the host, sat slumped in his cart on the 9th
fairway, already dreading the postround speech he would have to
deliver.

For Palmer, 24, the Cincinnati Bengals' second-year quarterback,
it wasn't a fear of public speaking but a preference for not
being the focus of attention. He's most comfortable when he can
just be one of the guys, and he believes the best leaders are the
ones who naturally fit in with teammates. Yet when the time came,
he spoke effortlessly for 10 minutes and thanked his guests for
supporting the charity the event benefited, a home for abused and
disadvantaged children. What Palmer has to do next is show the
same poise on the field, because with training camps opening this
week, the Bengals are taking the biggest gamble in the NFL by
making him their starter.

The first pick in the 2003 draft, Palmer hasn't taken a single
snap in an NFL regular-season game but steps under center for an
up-and-coming Cincinnati team that went 8-8 last season and
avoided a losing record for only the second time since 1990. He
replaces eight-year veteran Jon Kitna, who is coming off his
finest season as a pro--62.3 completion percentage, 3,591 passing
yards and 26 touchdowns (tied for third in the NFL)--and will be
ready on the sideline should the young quarterback falter.
Second-year coach Marvin Lewis has made the change because he
believes Palmer is ready to start and because the Bengals didn't
give the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner a seven-year, $49 million
contract (including a $14 million signing bonus) to carry a
clipboard. "I thought they'd wait another season to play Palmer
because the team made so much progress [last season]," says an
executive for another AFC club. "The last thing they want is to
take a step backward."

Cincinnati fans have been down this road with highly touted
quarterbacks before. David Klingler was the sixth pick in 1992,
and Akili Smith went third in '99, but neither passer panned out.
One factor in Palmer's favor is that he has more talent around
him than Klingler and Smith had. The Bengals have a sturdy line
built around tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones, a solid
running game with emerging back Rudi Johnson and playmakers such
as Chad Johnson, the brash Pro Bowl wideout who doesn't know what
all the fuss is about. "Carson only has two jobs," says Johnson.
"Read the defense and get the ball there."

That wisdom isn't lost on Palmer. "The worst thing I can do is
feel like I have to make a lot of electrifying throws," he says.
"It's natural to want to look like the Number 1 pick, but that's
why a lot of young guys struggle. We have so many talented
players that we don't need a superstar at quarterback. We just
need somebody who can do his job."

Lewis expects every man on the field to be up and running. "No
one man wins or loses games for us, but going with Carson means
our whole team has to grow up," he says. "We can't rely on Jon
anymore to tell people where to line up or what adjustments to
make."

At 6'5", 235 pounds, Palmer is bigger than Kitna and has a
stronger arm, and he's surprisingly mobile. Cincinnati plans to
incorporate more deep throws into the game plan, but the key to
the offense's success will be Palmer's ability to grasp the
nuances of being an NFL quarterback.

During the off-season Palmer and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese
analyzed game tapes of every pass coverage that Kitna faced in
2003 and how Kitna reacted to them. Zampese also drilled Palmer
on terminology and defensive fronts so they can communicate
easily between snaps. They worked on the quarterback's presence
in the huddle and at the line because the laid-back Palmer didn't
have a commanding voice. To correct that, he would call plays
aloud while walking around his suburban Cincinnati home.

Even as a newcomer and a backup last season, Palmer laid the
groundwork for a leadership role. At least 15 players and their
families routinely attended the weekly Monday Night Football
parties that Palmer and his wife, Shaelyn, hosted at their home.
During the winter Palmer and several offensive linemen and tight
ends donned camouflage and trekked into the woods behind his
house for games of paintball. Teammates roll their eyes when
Palmer, a native of Southern California, tries to tell them how
much he likes Cincinnati, but they also admire his humility. When
Anderson asked Palmer last fall about winning the Heisman at
Southern Cal, the rookie downplayed the achievement. "Ray Lewis
doesn't care about the Heisman," he said, referring to the
Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro linebacker.

What the Bengals are learning is that Palmer's first priority is
making those around him comfortable. At his charity golf
tournament he quizzed Survivor cast member Rob Mariano about life
on reality television, helped Rudi Johnson with his putting and,
after Mariano and an East Coast businessman in Palmer's group
said they worshipped the Red Sox, pledged to be a Boston fan for
the afternoon. Rarely did the conversation turn to football. "I
don't like it when people think athletes are more special than
they are," Palmer says. "I'm as normal as anybody except for the
fact that I may be better at football."

His good nature helped him through adversity early in his college
career. A highly regarded recruit when he got to USC in 1998, he
started the last five games as a freshman for an 8-5 team that
lost to TCU in the Sun Bowl. A broken right collarbone in the
third game of his sophomore year sidelined him for the season,
but he was granted a medical redshirt. The next fall Palmer tied
a school record with 18 interceptions as USC went 5-7.

By the time Pete Carroll took over as coach in 2001, Palmer was
used to taking the blame for USC's failures. However, there was
plenty of blame to go around when the Trojans finished 6-6 while
adjusting to the quick-read system of new offensive coordinator
Norm Chow. Heading into his senior season, Palmer had thrown as
many interceptions (39) as touchdown passes. He wasn't even
featured on the cover of the USC media guide that year, but by
the end of a stunning turnaround season he needed security guards
to lead him through giddy fans at the practice field. Throwing
for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions,
Palmer won the Heisman and set four Pac-10 career records.

Those experiences at USC helped prepare him for life in the NFL.
When Marvin Lewis's plan to give his rookie passer game
experience didn't pan out--because Cincinnati was in the running
for a playoff spot all the way to the final week--Palmer didn't
gripe. He found other ways to develop, such as studying the
game-management skills of the Tennessee Titans' Steve McNair and
the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and running through a
five-minute drill at the end of each practice that required him
to execute plays against a variety of exotic blitzes. When Palmer
went home, he'd eat dinner with Shaelyn and marvel at his first
pressure-free football season in years. "I realized how much I
missed the responsibility," he says.

Palmer wasn't surprised when he was told in February that he had
been promoted to starter, but he was impressed with how Kitna
handled the situation. The only disappointment Kitna showed came
when Lewis informed him of the decision. Kitna responded by
saying, "I made that decision tough on you, didn't I?" The two
quarterbacks crossed paths in San Diego shortly after the
announcement, and Kitna told Palmer he had his full support.
"When they drafted Carson, I didn't think it was necessary, but
their direction was clear," Kitna says. "This year is his time."

Nevertheless, Palmer realizes he has little margin for error.
"The quarterback position will not lose games for this team,"
Lewis says. According to offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowksi, if
Palmer struggles, "we won't have a quick hook; we'll have to
assess whether Carson is the problem or it's the people around
him."

Says Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose unit is
scheduled to test Palmer in Week 3, "I think they'll go back to
Jon pretty fast if Carson struggles."

Palmer seems unfazed about taking over a longtime NFL doormat
that suddenly has playoff aspirations. "I'm sure the sentiment
is, We were an 8-8 team with Jon, so imagine how great we'll be
with Carson," Palmer says. "That's pressure, but I can't worry
about how what we do compares to what we did last year. All I can
do is play."

2. Can the fifth running back picked in the draft revive the
COWBOYS' ground game?

The Risk With a rushing attack that averaged only 3.9 yards per
carry in the first season A.E. (After Emmitt), Dallas was in
position to select a marquee running back with its first-round
draft pick. Yet the Cowboys passed on Steven Jackson, Kevin Jones
and Chris Perry when their turn came at No. 22, instead trading
down and taking Julius Jones of Notre Dame at No. 43.

The Reason Jones's stock soared in the eyes of the Cowboys after
he turned in the second-fastest 40 among running backs at the NFL
scouting combine (4.38). Also, coach Bill Parcells (left, with
Jones) was impressed with the 5'9", 217-pound Jones when he met
him before the draft.

The Reality With his speed and elusiveness, Jones (3,018 career
rushing yards and a 4.8-yard average) will give this offense some
of the explosiveness it lacked in 2003. He doesn't have great
hands, and he'll need to prove himself as an inside runner, but
those aren't major concerns in Dallas. Fullback Richie Anderson
will probably carry the load again on third down. And it's hard
to argue with Parcells's instincts. He fared pretty well the last
time he waited to draft the running back he needed: Curtis
Martin, in the third round.

3.Will all those new faces in TAMPA BAY make a difference?

THE RISK A little more than a year after winning Super Bowl
XXXVII, the Bucs (7-9 in 2003) let go of a pair of franchise
cornerstones--safety John Lynch and defensive tackle Warren
Sapp--and signed 20 veteran free agents.

THE REASON After winning a power struggle late last year with
general manager Rich McKay (now G.M. of the Atlanta Falcons),
coach Jon Gruden cleaned house, bringing in players he believes
better fit his system. Bruce Allen, a senior front-office
assistant when he and Gruden were in Oakland, was brought in as
general manager, but Gruden is essentially calling the shots.

THE REALITY With four new projected starters on the line,
including aging tackles Derrick Deese, 34, and Todd Steussie, 33,
the Bucs could be inconsistent on offense until the blockers find
their rhythm. There's also the question of whether underachieving
wideout Joey Galloway (left), acquired in a trade with the Dallas
Cowboys for Keyshawn Johnson, can stretch the defense. Tampa Bay
still has plenty of Pro Bowl talent--cornerback Ronde Barber,
linebacker Derrick Brooks, wideout Keenan McCardell and defensive
end Simeon Rice--but expect this overhauled team playing in the
tough NFC South to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive
year.

4. Can the Freak stay on his feet in PHILADELPHIA?

THE RISK As part of an eight-year, $66 million deal, the Eagles
gave free-agent defensive end Jevon Kearse (right) a $16 million
signing bonus. Kearse set the NFL rookie single-season sack
record in '99, but he missed 14 games over the last two seasons
because of foot and ankle injuries.

THE REASON Philly paid for its inability to find an effective
replacement for the departed Hugh Douglas after the 2002 season;
the Eagles had only 38 sacks last year, down from the 56 they had
in '02. Kearse had 47 1/2 sacks in 66 games with the Tennessee
Titans. The Eagles need a pass rusher who can ease the burden on
a secondary that lost corners Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to
free agency.

THE REALITY Kearse, 27, hasn't been the same since breaking a
bone in his left foot, requiring surgery in '02 and early '03.
And after getting 9 1/2 sacks in his first nine games last year,
he missed two games with a sprained ankle and had no sacks in the
other five. However, word out of Philly is that Kearse looked
good in off-season workouts and minicamps.

5. Will an old friend solve KANSAS CITY's defensive woes?

THE RISK The Chiefs brought back every starter on a defense that
ranked 29th last year and then rehired Gunther Cunningham, who
was fired as K.C.'s coach after the 2000 season, to whip the unit
into shape. Cunningham, who replaces Greg Robinson as defensive
coordinator, served the Chiefs in that capacity from 1995 through
'98 (the Chiefs' D ranked second in his first year) before
taking over as coach for two seasons.

THE REASON The Chiefs believe their problems on defense were
schematic. The 58-year-old Cunningham, linebackers coach for the
Tennessee Titans the past three seasons, is still one of the best
defensive minds in the game and knows how to motivate players.

THE REALITY The defense will be better coached by Cunningham
(right), but it's hard to imagine a drastic improvement. The unit
still lacks an effective edge rusher, speed at linebacker and
consistent play at cornerback. Cunningham will find it difficult
to run his aggressive, blitzing schemes, and Kansas City will
have to keep winning shootouts.

6. Can a talented back mind his manners in NEW ENGLAND?

THE RISK The Super Bowl-champion Patriots dealt their
second-round pick in the April draft to the Cincinnati Bengals
for Corey Dillon (right), a three-time Pro Bowl running back with
a history of being a malcontent. How will he fit in on a team
filled largely with selfless, blue-collar types?

THE REASON New England ranked 27th in rushing last season and
can't continue to expect quarterback Tom Brady to carry the
offense. The addition of Dillon, who rushed for more than 1,000
yards in each of his first six NFL seasons, gives the Pats a
powerful runner whose surprising speed and sure hands make him a
perfect fit for this attack.

THE REALITY Dillon can be many things--immature, volatile,
enigmatic--but he isn't stupid. He'll be on his best behavior
because he's with a championship club that has a front office he
respects, which wasn't the case in Cincinnati. And he has to know
this: The Pats won two Super Bowls without a marquee back. So if
he does become a headache, the team will find a way to win
without him.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER READY OR NOT.... The playoff-hopeful Bengals like Palmer's armstrength, but the second-year passer has never taken a snap in anNFL game.COLOR PHOTO: AL BEHRMAN/AP BENCHED Despite having a career year, Kitna (3) lost his job toPalmer.COLOR PHOTO: JAMES D. SMITHCOLOR PHOTO: MATT MAY/TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERSCOLOR PHOTO: TOMASSO DEROSA/WIREIMAGE.COMCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN SLEEZER/THE KANSAS CITY STARCOLOR PHOTO: JOE GIBLIN/AP