As he stood in the middle of the field at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer didn't like what he was seeing. Cincinnati was tied with the Houston Texans 3--3 late in the second quarter, and two trainers were carting backup center Larry Moore to the locker room to treat his dislocated right knee. Palmer glanced over and saw left guard Eric Steinbach trotting toward the sideline to make a few practice snaps as center. The starter whom Moore had replaced, Rich Braham, was already out with a knee injury, so now Steinbach would be forced to take over against a Texans defense that loves to blitz.
Rather than panic, though, Palmer listened. He heard right tackle Willie Anderson and right guard Bobbie Williams discussing how they'd help Steinbach make the line calls. When play resumed, Palmer stood tall in the pocket, not dancing or overreacting to the pass rush. Though he'd been sacked twice before Moore's injury, he was able to avoid another one for the rest of the afternoon. "Those guys up front kept things together," Palmer said afterward. "It might have been a different story if they were all freaking out, but none of them flinched. That made my life a lot easier."
A one-of-the-guys ethos has been a key to Palmer's emergence as the NFL's hottest young quarterback. Yes, he has produced impressive stats in 2005, completing 71.8% of his passes, with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions, while leading the Bengals to a 4--0 start, their best since 1988. But rather than trying to carry the team, the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft has only to worry about fitting in with a talented cast. "We don't want to put too much pressure on Carson, because things can change fast for young quarterbacks in this league," says Anderson, a 10-year Bengals O-line vet. "We all know there will be games in which he'll struggle, so we don't think that we go as Carson goes. The Patriots don't think that. They all do their jobs, and Tom Brady plays well. That's what we need from Carson."
Sunday's victory was another example of Palmer doing what was needed of him. His numbers weren't overwhelming--he completed 25 of 34 passes for 276 yards and one touchdown--but he made the plays when they mattered most. With the game tied at 10 early in the fourth quarter, he completed eight of nine passes on a drive that ended with Shayne Graham's 27-yard go-ahead field goal in an eventual 16--10 win. Palmer relished a victory in which he and the Bengals, whose three previous wins were by an average of 20 points, proved that they could persevere in a close game. "He impressed me," said Texans linebacker Antwan Peek. "He was on target with his passes. He was poised in the pocket. He made good decisions. He gives them everything you want from a quarterback."
While Palmer has exceptional physical skills--accuracy, a cannon arm and surprising mobility for a 6'5", 230-pound QB--his understanding of his own game at this early stage in his career may be even more impressive. He rarely forces a pass. He knows how he wants to attack teams. He has learned the difference between aggressive and reckless. Says Steinbach, "You can see that Carson really gets things now."
One of the things Palmer gets is how to spread the football around. Instead of searching for Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson on every pass play as he often did last season, Palmer involves everybody. Seven Bengals had receptions against Houston. Fifth-year wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, in particular, is emerging as a dangerous option: On Sunday he had eight catches for 105 yards. "In the past I just wanted to get the ball to my playmaker," Palmer says. "Now I realize I have a lot of people who can bail me out of a jam. We're not just Chad Johnson and a bunch of other guys. We have some weapons."
Those include talented running backs Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry, and a stalwart offensive line. In his 17 NFL games, Palmer has been sacked only 30 times (1.8 per game); the Texans' Carr, in contrast, has gone down 160 times in 47 games (3.4). Cincinnati contributed seven of those sacks to Carr's total, and that's indicative of how the Bengals' defense has helped out. It has forced a league-best 17 turnovers, often providing Palmer and the offense with great field position. Cincinnati's assets have helped give him confidence and a cool head under fire. "You could talk to Carson after he threw an interception or a 70-yard touchdown pass, and you wouldn't know the difference," says offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "No matter what's happening on the field, he's always on to the next play."
But don't mistake Palmer's calmness for complacency. He's intent on becoming a great NFL quarterback. Upon being drafted, he told the Bengals he would turn down all endorsement offers for the time being and avoid anything else that might distract him from football. Though he didn't play a down as a rookie, he never complained; on the contrary, he often quizzed starter Jon Kitna about how to prepare for games. When coach Marvin Lewis named Palmer the starter in February '04, it only strengthened his commitment to improving. On Nov. 8 last year, the day after a 26--3 home victory over the Cowboys, Palmer and Johnson made a two-hour drive to Indianapolis to watch the Colts in a Monday-night game. The two NFL stars lurked incognito in the concourse of the RCA Dome until shortly after kickoff. They then took their seats and studied the chemistry between Pro Bowlers Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Palmer noted, in particular, how Manning constantly talked with his receivers on the sideline. "When Carson came back from that game," says Palmer's wife, Shaelyn, "he definitely started working harder to be a great player."
This season, when Palmer returns home after practices, he reviews all the blitzes the upcoming opponent has shown over its previous four games. He also jots down notes on the responsibilities of each defender in any scheme he'll face. Says Palmer, "I've never really studied the game like that. I've always just watched film. But guys like Jon [Kitna] and [quarterbacks] coach [Ken] Zampese have helped me take things to another level."
"He's definitely studying harder," Zampese says. "When I talked about defensive looks last year, I had to walk him through everything. I don't have to do that as much now because he's a step ahead."
The work is paying off. In Cincinnati's first two wins this year, Palmer torched Cleveland (280 yards, two TDs, one INT) and Minnesota (337 yards, three TDs, one pick). Against a stingy Chicago defense in Week 3, he had three more scoring passes. Still, Bengals coaches know not to ask too much of him yet. In practice they constantly watch to see which plays he's uncomfortable running and keep them out of that week's game plan. On Fridays before games, Palmer is required to give Bratkowski a list of plays he'd like to run in specific situations, and Bratkowski makes it a priority to call those plays.
All the extra work is meant to ensure that Palmer doesn't rely too much on his physical skills, as many young QBs do. "He has that laser arm," Lewis says, "and there are times when he still thinks he can throw the ball through people. He has had two interceptions this season, and they were both his fault. So we constantly remind him that six points count the same whether he throws it in or we get it another way."
Palmer will need that assistance as he faces tougher defenses--including Jacksonville's, Pittsburgh's and Baltimore's over the next five weeks--but he's gaining confidence with each game. Indeed, Norm Chow, his offensive coordinator at USC who's now with the Titans, recently left a voice mail on Palmer's cellphone reminding him to "make sure his helmet still fits."
Nobody around the Bengals expects Palmer to get too full of himself. Even after Sunday's win he hid behind a row of television production trucks outside the locker room to avoid fans who were lingering in the parking lot. Before leaving, Palmer talked about all the things he still needs to work on. "The best thing about Carson is that he realizes he's not a finished product," Bratkowski says. "With the run he's been on, some guys in his position would think they've arrived. Carson understands that he's really just getting started."
Palmer rarely forces a pass; HE KNOWS HOW he wants to attack teams; and he's learned the difference between aggressive and reckless. Says Steinbach, "You can see Carson really gets things now."