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Now or never for Palmer's Bengals
“It’s not about our schedule, when our bye week is, how our scheme’s going to be, the weather,” Palmer told FOXSports.com on Tuesday before practice at Paul Brown Stadium. “It’s not about anything but us – the guys this organization has put together as a team. It’s on our shoulders to win.
“It’s talked about a little bit and in people’s heads. That’s good because we’re putting pressure on ourselves. We’re expecting a lot.”
If the Bengals are to fulfill those internal expectations – among them being the franchise’s first playoff victory since 1990 and back-to-back division titles in almost 30 years – no player faces more pressure to produce than the quarterback himself. That’s because Palmer’s play will ultimately determine how far the Bengals can get.
He is currently the longest-tenured NFL starter who has yet to win a playoff game. Now entering his eighth season, the 30-year-old Palmer has suffered major injuries to his knee and elbow that have helped keep him from being regarded among the league’s franchise quarterbacks.
Palmer played hurt last year as well. He entered the season with a high ankle sprain and then tore ligaments in his left thumb. Palmer, though, was a clutch fourth-quarter passer who helped guide Cincinnati to a 9-3 start. He also looked sharp in last Saturday’s preseason game against Buffalo running a no-huddle attack, which is a wrinkle the Bengals will be using for the first time since the 2007 campaign. Palmer completed nine of 11 attempts for 95 yards and two touchdowns in three series before heading to the bench early in the second quarter.
“We very much want to think that’s the level we can play at entering the season,” Bengals owner/general manager Mike Brown said. “We looked like we wanted to look.”
Such fluidity was a far cry from what transpired at the end of last season. While the Bengals were stout defensively and on the ground, the passing attack was gradually decimated by injuries. Palmer had only one dangerous target in Chad Ochocinco, whose effectiveness was 86’d as defenses rolled coverage in his direction. After a first-round home playoff loss to the Jets, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Palmer had grown “discouraged with what he had” to work with.
“As the season went on, we got to that point where teams take away what you do best,” Whitworth said. “You’ve got to be able to do that second thing. We weren’t able to throw the football effectively and that hurt us. We lost a playoff game but rushed for 171 yards. Not very often does that happen.”
Palmer didn’t sit back and wait for Cincinnati’s front office to act toward addressing the problem. Coach Marvin Lewis said Palmer pushed him for the drafting of more skill-position players and even watched video on potential prospects to offer his two cents. Palmer’s prayers were answered in April when the Bengals used high picks on tight end Jermaine Gresham (first round) and wide receiver Jordan Shipley (third).
Palmer also was actively involved recruiting two free-agent wideouts in Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant, who was released last Sunday because of a knee injury. Palmer’s vote of approval for Owens after the two worked out together in California helped seal his July addition by Bengals management, which had sensed Bryant’s long-term health prognosis was far worse than initially determined by its embattled medical staff.
“He’s gotten some new weapons,” Whitworth said of Palmer. “He’s like a kid with Christmas toys.”
Asked what he saw in the 36-year-old Owens to trigger his support, Palmer smiled and said, “It would be easier for me to talk about the things I didn’t see. He’s so complete … We were working out together and I saw this guy can still play. I don’t care if he’s 40 years old. That was evident right away.”
Lewis said Cincinnati has practiced extra on deep throws hoping such work translates to the regular season and creates wider running lanes for 1,200-yard rusher Cedric Benson. The talent infusion also will give offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski more chances for creativity.
While not as tall or fast as the late Chris Henry, Shipley is drawing heavy praise from Palmer and Lewis for his work in the slot. Cincinnati also hasn’t had a receiving threat at tight end like Gresham since Dan Ross in the early 1980s. After years of predominantly fielding three-receiver sets, Cincinnati should be able to spread the field better than at any point since Palmer became a starter in 2004.
“We haven’t had four receivers we can put on the field and go,” Lewis said.
Only one current quarterback-head coach combination has worked together longer than the pairing of Palmer and Lewis, both of whom joined the Bengals in 2003. That other duo – Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England – has three Super Bowls to its credit.
At least Palmer and Lewis can take solace in knowing the Bengals are a far better franchise than when they first arrived. As the draft’s No. 1 overall pick, Palmer remembers how different the atmosphere initially was compared to his halcyon college days at Southern Cal.
“It didn’t seem like it was really important to win (here),” Palmer said after his arrival. “I didn’t know what was important. Winning wasn’t part of the environment. There wasn’t a pressure like, ‘You’ve got to win or they’re going to find someone else.’ You never felt that.”
The Bengals do now. Aided by Palmer’s locker room leadership, Lewis was gradually able to change that losing culture. This is why just reaching the playoffs is no longer considered a successful season in Cincinnati.
Lewis believes the Bengals earned enough respect last year that “people have to play us” rather than vice-versa.
“If I were the other side, I would look at us differently than we were looked at before,” he said.
Now it’s on Palmer and Co. to prove 2009 wasn’t a fluke.
“We weren’t great but we won a lot of games,” Palmer admits. “We’re a better team now than at any point from Week One to 17 last year. That’s a good thing.”
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