Pass or Fail

The NFL's opening week showcased the leaguewide upheaval at quarterback--and no one was under more scrutiny than Carson Palmer
September 17, 2006

WITH A TOWEL onhis head and a scowl on his face, Carson Palmer walked slowly through the rain,his postgame mood matching the gloomy weather. Eight months after shredding hisleft knee, the Cincinnati Bengals' All-Pro quarterback had just made atriumphant return to the NFL, smoothly guiding his team to a season-opening23--10 road victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. In his first real game sincebeing carted off from last January's crushing playoff loss to the PittsburghSteelers, Palmer had stood tall in the pocket while uncorking some exquisitespirals, reminding everyone why he's regarded as the brightest young talent athis position. Yet as he prepared to leave Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, thefourth-year passer gave himself a failing grade. ¶ "That was ugly,"Palmer said of his performance--13 of 19 for 127 yards and zero touchdowns."I know you don't throw for 400 and rush for 200 every game, but when youdon't, and you're used to doing it, it doesn't feel right. It feels like wedidn't do our job. It feels like we lost." ¶ Perhaps Palmer felt guilty forhaving dashed the hopes of all those fantasy football players who had salivatedover what he might do to the Chiefs' shaky defense. Maybe he doesn't believe inrust. Most plausibly, living up to the standards he established last season isa source of ongoing frustration for one of the NFL's least-patient men.

Although Palmerexpected bigger and better things from himself on opening day, he can at leasttake some encouragement from the impressive comebacks of some of his peers.With Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, the Jets' Chad Pennington, Chicago's RexGrossman and New Orleans' Drew Brees returning from injury-marred 2005campaigns to lead their teams to victories, this was Revival Sunday. Throw inthe solid, winning efforts by relocated veteran Steve McNair with the Ravensand besieged Falcon Michael Vick, and battered quarterbacks were flexing theirthrowing arms as though their careers depended on it.

"We've allgot a desperate hunger to get back to our old selves, and we're motivated tocome back even better," said McNabb, who passed for 314 yards and three TDsin guiding the Eagles past the Houston Texans 24--10. "We're like afraternity, and when you see other quarterbacks and the stuff they have to gothrough--people talking bad about them, guys coming back from injuries--it'sexciting to watch them bounce back and see their teams rallying behindthem."

Of course, everyaction triggers an equal and opposite reaction, and for once-lofty passers likethe Packers' Brett Favre and Dallas's Drew Bledsoe and on-the-spot youngsterslike David Carr of the Texans and Buffalo's J.P. Losman, Sunday'sdisappointments could portend an inglorious demise. Seldom has a season begunwith so many signal-callers in such precarious positions, as Chiefs veteranTrent Green pointed out last Saturday following the team's walk-through at itspractice field. "Everyone talks about the 10 new head coaches, but there'sa whole lot of quarterback upheaval, too," Green said. "It seems likeeverywhere you look, there's a quarterback who's in a new place, coming backfrom an injury, or who, if he doesn't play well the first few weeks, couldeasily get pulled."

On Sunday, Green,who enjoys one of the league's more stable situations, served as a chillingreminder of the inherent fragility of an NFL quarterback: While ducking into aslide after scrambling for a first down with 4:28 left in the third quarter, hetook a shoulder-to-helmet shot from Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers thatknocked him cold and shook up the 77,956 fans at Arrowhead. After a delay of 11minutes Green was strapped to a backboard and gurney and transported to a localhospital, where X-rays on his head and neck were negative. Green's severeconcussion will keep him out indefinitely (a source close to the Chiefs onMonday said late October is a realistic return date), ending his streak of 81consecutive starts, the third longest among QBs after Favre (222) and PeytonManning (129).

By the time Greenwent down, the Bengals had control of the game and had already grounded theirhigh-powered passing attack, allowing running back Rudi Johnson (28 carries, 96yards) and an aggressive defense (seven sacks, two takeaways) to grab the glorynormally reserved for Palmer and flamboyant wideout Chad Johnson. Playing hisfirst game as a blond--the color he recently dyed his Mohawk--Johnson had morefun in the first half, when he caught five passes for 48 yards. Yet on thefirst play of the second quarter, with the Bengals trailing 3--0 and facingthird-and-15 from the Kansas City 19, Johnson lost a chance to unveil hislatest touchdown celebration. After he cut from left to right and flashed openacross the front of the end zone, Palmer zipped a ball that hit Johnson in thefoot. Though it appeared that Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen might havetipped the ball, Palmer, when asked later if that were the case, shook his headand said, "I just missed him." Johnson couldn't wait to forget aboutthe play, saying, "Oooooh, my goodness. Don't remind me."

Both players hadbeen bubbly after the Bengals' practice at Paul Brown Stadium last Friday,immediately heading into a small room for their daily Ping-Pong showdown.Standing back from the table to showcase his ferocious slam while emittingSharapovaesque screams, Johnson swept five games to claim bragging rights. Anhour later he sat in a booth at the Hyde Park restaurant where he eats lunchevery day and solemnly recounted his reaction to the quarterback's devastatinginjury in the playoff loss to the Steelers. Palmer had just released his firstpass of the day, a 66-yard beauty to wideout Chris Henry, when a hit from Kimovon Oelhoffen left Palmer sprawled on the turf and hushed a stadium of stunnedBengals fans. "I was crying," Johnson recalled. "I was standingover him thinking, You've got to be [kidding] me; this ain'thappening."

The loss of hisquarterback triggered Johnson's infamous halftime tirade, in which he dislodgedan IV needle from his arm, causing blood to spurt, as he implored an assistantcoach to involve him more in the offense. He settled down considerably in theoff-season as Palmer kept blowing away teammates, coaches and trainers with thepace of his rehab. "At the start of camp, when Carson came back and startedrunning around the way he did, I knew he was going to be all right,"Johnson said.

It's possiblePalmer looked too good--at least that seemed to explain the controversyconcerning the timing of his return. Palmer had long planned to be back for theteam's third preseason game, on Aug. 28 against Green Bay. But before Cincy'sexhibition opener on Aug. 13, two NBC announcers told him that Bengals coachMarvin Lewis was pushing for Palmer to play the following Friday at Buffalo.Palmer bristled, and when he confronted Lewis, the coach relented, affirmingthat he could wait to play until the third preseason game and still start theopener. "The original plan was that he'd return for that game," Lewissaid, "and he's so strong-willed he wasn't going to let anything alterit."

Any doubts aboutPalmer's knee were ended when he debuted against the Packers on national TV andthrew three first-half touchdown passes. Suddenly, after an off-season thatincluded the arrests of five Cincinnati players--which turned the team into anational punch line--all was well in the Bengals' universe.

Still, Palmeradmitted he was nervous before facing the Chiefs, whose new coach, HermEdwards, figured to put a premium on pressuring the passer. The night beforethe game, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski reminded Palmer not toforce passes. Palmer unwound by watching comedian Dane Cook's HBO special,Vicious Circle--which is what the Bengals' offensive line will be formingaround Palmer every time he drops back to pass this season. As veteran All-Proright tackle Willie Anderson says, "We love blocking for Carson, becausehe's such a humble, down-to-earth guy. I've been around quarterbacks whoscrewed themselves by acting like they were bigger than the team. Carson's oneof us. He's like your little brother who won the lottery--you're happy for him,and you want to keep a guy like that clean." It doesn't hurt that Palmerlavishes his linemen with generous gifts--last December some gothome-entertainment systems while others received hot tubs.

Palmer didn'theat up on Sunday until Cincinnati took over at its own 12-yard line with 10:18remaining in the second quarter. At that point he had completed 3 of 6 passesfor nine yards, but Bratkowski's decision to go to the no-huddle offense, astaple of the Bengals' attack in 2005, brought the magic back. In launching an11-play drive that ended with Rudi Johnson's 22-yard touchdown burst onthird-and-one, Palmer put on a show that undoubtedly brightened the afternoonfor Cincinnati fans: a quick slant to Chad Johnson; a nice underneath throw towideout Kelley Washington; a crisp 15-yard out to Johnson on the left sideline;a quick hitch to Johnson, who was schooling All-Pro cornerback Ty Law; and afeathery sideline pass to Johnson that floated just over the arms of linebackerDerrick Johnson. By the time Palmer had completed his ninth consecutive passearly in the third quarter, the Bengals, still running the no-huddle in anexceedingly loud stadium, had gone up 17--3 and shifted into ball-controlmode.

In past yearsPalmer might have lobbied to keep attacking through the air. Instead, he spentmuch of the second half focusing on fine-tuning the Bengals' running game,exhorting his offensive linemen to "keep pounding." At game's end,Bratkowski said, Palmer "was upset about some of the runs he audibled usinto and some reads he missed when we went to the no-huddle. That's just Carsonbeing a perfectionist. He can be pretty tough on himself."

If that soundssuspiciously like another prolific pocket passer who calls plays at the line(hint: you may have seen him and his little brother on TV a few timesrecently), it's no coincidence. "It takes a while to get the feel of theno-huddle--the timing and when to call what plays," Palmer said. "It'ssomething we need to work on, because we're not perfect yet. We're notIndy."

As he leftArrowhead, Palmer walked through the late-afternoon rain to the team buslooking California casual, in leather sandals, thin khakis and asilver-and-blue golf shirt. For a man whose football future had been injeopardy just eight months earlier, he seemed strikingly blasé about hissuccessful return from an injury that often takes much longer to heal. Onlywhen the conversation turned to some of the NFL's other passers did his spiritsbrighten.

When it comes toquarterbacks, Palmer is an unabashed fan. He admits that "half the time I'mwatching film of other defenses, I'm actually focused on the quarterbacks,because it's so fun to check out their mannerisms and the way they handlesituations. There are so many interesting situations in the league right now,it will be cool to see how they play out."

Told on Sundaythat Pennington, coming off rotator-cuff surgery, had thrown for 319 yards andtwo touchdowns in leading the Jets to a 23--16 victory over the TennesseeTitans, Palmer said, "Good for Chad." He was equally pleased uponlearning that McNabb, who missed the second half of 2005 with a sports hernia,had performed so well. "That's sweet," Palmer said, grabbing the towelfrom atop his head and wiping the raindrops from his brow. "He bouncedback." Finally, the scowl was gone, if only for a moment.

COVER FIVE

Get daily insights from SI's NFL crew--Jeffri Chadiha,Peter King, Tim Layden, Michael Silver and Paul Zimmerman--at SI.com/nfl.

On Opening Day, battered quarterbacks were FLEXINGTHEIR ARMS as though their careers depended on it.

"We've got a DESPERATE HUNGER to get back to ourold selves," says McNabb, "and come back even better."

PHOTOAl TielemansSURGICAL STRIKE Eight months after his devastating knee injury, Palmer was poised and in control against the Chiefs. PHOTOJULIE SCHEIDEGGER/WIREIMAGE.COMWALLFLOWER Though Johnson didn't get to show off his latest touchdown dance, he was happy to have his All-Pro passer back. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (GROSSMAN)BEARING UP Grossman led a shutout of the Pack. PHOTORONALD MARINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (MCNABB)FLYING McNabb's three TD tosses had the Eagles on a high.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)