Carson Palmer rolled to his right, deftly avoided several Chicago Bears chasing him across the field, and spotted Chris Henry slipping away from flummoxed defenders in the back of the end zone.
The pass was perfect. Easy touchdown. And it was just getting started.
For the first time in years, Palmer had his way for an entire game, one that felt like a flashback. He threw five touchdown passes and only four incompletions in a 45-10 victory that sent the Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) into their bye week with a sense of nostalgia.
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Touchdown after touchdown? They used to do this all the time.
“He’s a top-level quarterback in this league,” offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. “You give him time and the (receivers) on the outside are spot-on where they need to be, it looks pretty good.”
Palmer hasn’t looked this good for some time.
The 2002 Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal and first overall pick in the 2003 draft was the next big thing when his NFL career got started. In 2005, he led the league in completion percentage, set a franchise record with 32 touchdown passes, and pulled off one of the most impressive feats of all – he got the Bengals to the playoffs.
His left knee was torn up on a hit during a playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Palmer has never gotten back to those ’05 heights.
He became almost an afterthought in discussions of the game’s top quarterbacks, missing time because of the knee injury and a torn-up passing elbow that sidelined him for a dozen games last year. He spent far more time in the trainer’s room than in the huddle.
That part has finally changed.
Palmer is generally healthy; he has a sprained left thumb that’s more of a nuisance than anything. And he’s moving around much better than he has in years.
“When you’re not taking a bunch of sacks and getting hit every time you throw the ball like our opponents are, you feel a lot better in games and can move around a lot better,” Palmer said.
Palmer put up his big numbers in ’05 with a solid running game anchored by Rudi Johnson, a dangerous receiving corps led by Chad Johnson, and an offensive line that gave him plenty of time to do whatever he wanted. He was sacked only 19 times in 16 regular-season games.
Very quickly, everything changed.
The Bengals finished last in the league in offense, gave up an astounding 51 sacks, and set about reinventing themselves.
The offensive line was overhauled; right guard Bobbie Williams is the only starter in the same position. Ochocinco set out to play at a Pro Bowl level again. And Bratkowski reconfigured the playbook, aiming to get the running game going.
After seven games, Cedric Benson leads the league in rushing, Palmer has been sacked only 11 times (compared to 26 sacks allowed in the first seven games last season), and the Bengals are off to their best start since 2005.
The line has made the biggest improvement. Palmer has been sacked only twice in the last three games.
“To be honest with you, they’re beyond my expectations right now,” offensive line coach Paul Alexander said. “And unfortunately, it’s made me greedy because now I’m shooting for the moon, and they can be even better.”
The Bengals have changed their alignments to emphasize the run and protect Palmer. Tight ends are lined up in the backfield as blockers. An extra offensive lineman takes a tight end’s spot on some plays. Palmer also is rolling out more to thwart pass rushers.
“We’ve put in some new stuff, some new protections, some new angles,” Palmer said. “It makes it more difficult. When the quarterback is always seven yards deep right behind the center, it makes it a little easier to pin your ears back and come after him.”
The game against Chicago was the first time it all came together. Palmer had been merely average over the first six games. Against the Bears, Cincinnati scored on its first seven drives. Palmer finished 20 of 24 for 233 yards with five touchdowns, no interceptions and a career-high passer rating of 146.7.
His season statistics aren’t eye-catching: 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions. His passer rating of 89.2 ranks 15th; the average rating this week is 83.4. Peyton Manning leads the NFL with a 114.5 rating.
The Bengals figure that as long as Palmer stays healthy and gets time, those numbers will keep improving.
“When he doesn’t get touched, when he doesn’t get sacked, he can do those type of things,” Williams said.