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First Impressions

It's only preseason and training camp, but the Bengals are thrilled about Palmer's poise, presence and potential

August 17, 2003|Ken Murray | Baltimore Sun

GEORGETOWN, Ky. — In his first preseason game action for the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend, rookie quarterback Carson Palmer had two passes intercepted that were returned for touchdowns by the New York Jets.

When he finally hit a Bengal receiver in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, teammate Duane Clemons rushed to present him with the ball from his first touchdown pass in the NFL.

But in a moment both revealing and enticing, Palmer declined the commemorative ball. "Don't worry about it," he told Clemons. "That's my third."

Of such humble beginnings are NFL legends born. With that retort, the Bengals glimpsed their quarterbacking future. They like what they see.

"The biggest thing that stands out about Carson is his humbleness and his character," said right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, an eight-year veteran. "Throwing those two picks the other day, I've seen other quarterbacks around here [do that] before where their head would be down. They just sulked. They'd never have come back and engineered a touchdown drive the way he did."

Clarity has arrived at this sleepy college town where the Bengals have held training camp the past seven years. Its face belongs to Palmer, the first pick in last April's draft and Cincinnati's hope for the future.

It's only preseason, but Palmer, 23, already has won over his teammates with uncommon poise and exceptional talent.

"He's going to be great," wide receiver Peter Warrick said. "He just needs time. You can't rush a person into something."

New Bengal Coach Marvin Lewis, the one-time defensive coordinator of the Ravens, is banking on it.

"He's a tough guy, and the talent is off the chart as far as the ability to throw the football," Lewis said. "He works hard at it. He had good coaching at USC, but obviously when you can do it 24/7, it makes a big difference."

The Bengals, who earned the right to take Palmer by going 2-14 last season, want to proceed slowly with their newest prodigy.

With good reason.

In 1999, under Coach Bruce Coslet, the Bengals inserted rookie quarterback Akili Smith, the third overall pick, into the lineup in Week 5, although he had missed two preseason games in a holdout. Smith won only three games in four years and was released last June.

Lewis seems determined not to repeat the mistake. He named veteran Jon Kitna the starter in the off-season and penciled in another vet, Shane Matthews, as the backup.

"I think right now our best option is Jon Kitna," Lewis said. "Carson has to come along and beat Jon out, and he hasn't shown that yet. If we put him in there and he blows up, it's not fair to the rest of the team."

To help facilitate Palmer's development, Lewis also brought in quarterback coach Ken Zampese, the passing game coach with the St. Louis Rams last season, whose father is former NFL offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese.

What impressed Bengal offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski most about Palmer's performance against the Jets was his composure. First, Palmer was playing in a driving rainstorm. Then his helmet communicator with the sideline went out. That led to one delay-of-game penalty.

The interceptions are correctable. Poise is inherent.

"I can't give that to someone. I can't coach it," Bratkowski said. "You have to have it. And man, he stood tall in the pocket and was relaxed. You can tell a lot of times young quarterbacks get in there and have happy feet; you can see they're nervous with their feet. There was no sign of that at all with him."

Palmer is already adjusting to the NFL's faster tempo. "Because holes are closing quick and receivers are faster, you speed up your arm and your mind in reading defenses," he said.

"You never want to start off your NFL career throwing two interceptions," he said, "but it's two opportunities I had to chance to learn from. I'm a better player now that I've learned my lesson throwing the out ball too far inside a receiver. And when it's raining, you've got to put the ball on a guy's chest.

"I can definitely play better, I know that."

Those words are salve for Cincinnati's long-suffering fans. This time, perhaps, the Bengals got the right quarterback.

"I would certainly say from what I know now, I think we have the real deal," Bratkowski said. "We'll find out more. Every indication I have at this point is that we do."

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