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Diane Pucin

Palmer Worth Wait in Gold

May 05, 2003|Diane Pucin

CINCINNATI — The NFL's No. 1 draft pick is staying at a Sheraton Four Points, which isn't the top-of-the-line Sheraton brand. The NFL's No. 1 draft pick is flying home today, home being his parents' house in Laguna Niguel, where he will hit the books, the Cincinnati Bengal playbooks.

Carson Palmer wears the title of No. 1 draft pick modestly. He is not weighted down with gold jewelry or a big head. Palmer hasn't bought fancy clothes or cars or electronics.

He has come to his first NFL mini-camp and been deferential to Cincinnati's veteran quarterbacks. Who would be Jon Kitna, the starter, and Akili Smith of Oregon, the 1999 No. 3 NFL pick, a major disappointment so far and exhibit A for why some Cincinnati fans wish the Bengals hadn't made a Pacific 10 Conference quarterback the No. 1 pick overall.

On the third day of his first mini-camp, wearing No. 9, Palmer seems to have moved up to being Kitna's backup.

New Coach Marvin Lewis, whose arrival has brought life, hope and even enthusiasm to this woebegone franchise and its beaten-down fans, has been careful to say that Palmer is not expected to be the starter this season, no matter that he has signed a $49-million contract and already received a check for $10 million.

It is not the intent of Lewis to ruin another young quarterback, as David Klingler was ruined, as Smith has been ruined here. In an almost wistful way, Smith has been telling people he wishes he were starting out now with the Bengals, with this new staff and new attitude.

But it is Palmer who is starting out and the Bengals are finding out quickly they are lucky to have him.

For his attitude first of all.

Palmer is all about watching, listening and learning. After every snap, every pass, every drill, Palmer is quick to seek out offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski or quarterback coach Ken Zampese.

"Carson has been very good about seeking knowledge," Bratkowski said. "You like that in a young kid, especially a guy who's the No. 1 pick."

Palmer has been good about other things too.

The way he throws the ball, for example. Hard. Accurate. Always going where Palmer means for it to go. That's not to say every pass hits the receiver in the hands. "What I've seen," Bratkowski said, "is that Carson doesn't ever seem to throw a bad ball. But he's still learning the offense. And his receivers."

And the defenders.

On Day 1 of his first minicamp, Palmer had a ball batted down on a post route. Palmer was surprised. But it hasn't happened again.

"The window [to a completion] was open a little longer in college," Palmer said. "Here, the middle linebacker got a piece of the ball practically before I threw it. But I think I've adjusted pretty quickly. It's a matter of figuring out your timing. I just had to be a little quicker."

That is the same old Palmer, the young man with the big shoulders. The golden boy who will always take the blame, say it's his fault, vow to do better.

It is what Cincinnati will come to appreciate, maybe more than anything, about their new bonus baby. He will not expect others to make him better and will not expect others to take the blame. He will remain publicly optimistic, be a loyal teammate, and his coaches will only get credit and never criticism.

"Quite honestly," Bratkowski said, "in our research on Carson, that is something which very much impressed us. With all the adversity Carson had at USC, we never heard anything or saw anything that made us think Carson did anything but handle it gracefully. In our situation, that's important."

That's important because, for nearly a decade, the Bengals have been the most hapless professional sports franchise in the country. They have become a punch line, the example of everything you don't want a professional team to be.

Yet Palmer has arrived at a good time.

Because Lewis, a hard-nosed, confident, respected NFL veteran, seems to have some power. He seems able to tell tightfisted owner Mike Brown what he wants and needs and get it. More computers, more scouts, more staff, more of the things a 21st-century NFL franchise should take for granted, Lewis is getting all that.

And Lewis will not stand for Brown telling him to play Palmer if it's not the right time to play Palmer.

Bengal fans have fallen in love with Lewis and are willing, eager even, to give him time to make things better. Lewis would prefer Palmer be raised slowly and carefully as an NFL quarterback. While Brown might prefer his newest investment to be on the field in September, Bratkowski said Lewis won't let that happen.

And Palmer isn't going to demand it.

"I'm here to learn and to be whatever the Bengals want me to be," Palmer said. "It's my job to work hard and do things right. If I need to watch, I'll watch. If I need to play, I'll play."

Bratkowski continues to tick off Palmer's upsides. His quick release. His foot speed. His feel for the plays, after only three days. His positive attitude. His politeness. His toughness.

"Carson won't be the starter in Game 1," Bratkowski said. And then he didn't say anything else.


Diane Pucin can be reached at

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