Rain had begun to fall on Soldier Field when Carson Palmer ducked his head into the Bengals huddle and told wideout Chad Johnson to give him a short hook route-and nothing more. Midway through the third quarter in Chicago during Week 3, the Bengals didn't need anything fancy. They were up 10-0 on their way to a 24-7 victory and a 3—0 record. The huddle broke. The ball was snapped.
And there was Johnson, climbing over the top of the cornerback, taxi-hailing with his right arm as he streaked toward the end zone.
Having glanced away to freeze the safety, Palmer turned and threw to the shallow flat, where Johnson should have been. The pass was nearly picked off, but Johnson cantered back to the huddle, nonplussed. Despite his reputation for a renegade 'tude, the wideout's antics are generally in good fun and rarely to the detriment of his teammates. He's rarely challenged in Cincinnati, but a red-faced and frothing Palmer exploded out of the huddle, ramming his face mask into Johnson's and snarling, "Hey … Hey man! What the f- are you doing? Don't you ever do that again. You understand me?"
Commissioners, coaches and cornerbacks have all tried and failed to find Johnson's mute button. This time, though, he stood silent, frozen. The sight startled the other Bengals so much that they broke into nervous giggles. On the next play, Palmer hit Chris Henry up the other sideline for a 36-yard TD. "I gotta tell you," Johnson said later. "I won't ever do that again. We can all laugh about it now but, man, that was some scary s-. Carson don't play. For real. I was speechless."
Quieting Johnson is just one of several amazing feats Palmer has pulled off in Cincinnati this season. The No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft is the triggerman for the AFC's top-rated offense, the NFL Offensive Player of the Month for September and the exception to the Heisman quarterback jinx. In a city that's gone 15 years without a winning football season, he's guided the Bengals to their first 4—1 start since 1990. "You can feel what this franchise has been through," says Palmer, 25. "You really can. As a team it makes you want to give this town something to cheer about. As for me, I want what Peyton Manning has. How a defense sees him and knows he's going to scorethe only question is how long it's going to take."
The same can be said of Palmer's career. "When Carson was born," says backup QB Jon Kitna, "it was as if God touched him and said, Okay, you're a quarterback.' " Since birth, Palmer was groomed for the position, first in California's year-round hothouse culture of passing leagues and elite QB camps, then in Norm Chow's lab at USC. You can see it in Palmer's flawless fundamentals, his John O'Hurley footwork, his glass-cutting spirals and his numbers: over his past eight starts (he missed the final three games of 2004 with a sprained knee) Palmer is 6—2 with 2,136 passing yards, a 73% completion percentage and 20 TDs (against seven picks) for a passer rating of 113.0. So you could see this season coming. Anyone could. Except maybe the fans in Cincinnati. And the QB himself.
Before Palmer, the Bengals had twice used their No.1 pick to draft a franchise QB. They took Houston's David Klingler in 1992 and Oregon's Akili Smith seven years later. Both failed miserably. Klingler threw 16 TDs and 21 picks before he was cut after the 1995 season. Smith lasted until 2002 and was last seen warming a bench in Europe. Palmer and the Bengals were trying to rewrite a page of history, that long list of Heisman QBs who Heimliched in the NFL: Eric Crouch, Danny Wuerffel, Gino Torretta, Andre Ware.
But Palmer got lucky. Three months before the 2003 draft, Bengals owner/GM Mike Brown turned over the league's last mom-and-pop operation to Marvin Lewis. After a decade-and-ahalf of abject failure, capped by a 2—14 season and the dismissal of coach Dick LeBeau, the franchise was flirting with a full-blown fan mutiny. A county commissioner considered a lawsuit against the Bengals, claiming the team breached its $458 million stadium deal by not even trying to field a competitive team. At the time, Lewis was the hottest coaching prospect in the NFL, earning $1 million a year as Redskins defensive coordinator. When he asked for full control, Brown handed it over to him.
Lewis cleaned house immediately. He beefed up the team's scouting staff—the one that whiffed on Klingler and Smith—and wasted no time giving offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and QB coach Ken Zampese their first assignment: go west and shadow Palmer. He was an obvious target. At 6'5", 232 pounds, Palmer ran a 4.65 40 and benched 385. His accuracy was already the stuff of scouting legend. When told to hit a receiver on a 35-yard fly route, Palmer would ask, with a straight face, "You want that on the upfield nipple or downfield nipple?"
But the league is littered with the salary-cap ghosts of can't-miss QBs. What Lewis wanted to know was this: could Palmer handle the adversity sure to come if Cincy picked him?
IN A state that regularly churned out quarterback prodigies like John Elway and Todd Marinovich, Carson Palmer still stood out. Before finishing seventh grade, he was working with his own passing guru: Bob Johnson, father of former NFL QB Rob Johnson. At Santa Margarita High School in Mission Viejo, he won two state titles, and when he announced that he would attend USC, Palmer was expected to restore the program to greatness. Only the second true freshman to start under center for the Trojans, the 18-year-old led the team to an 8—5 record and the Sun Bowl. But three games into his sophomore season, Palmer cracked his right collarbone. He was forced to redshirt, and over the next three years-as Palmer struggled to regain his form-USC fell into ruin with a 17—19 overall record. His first coach, Paul Hackett, was fired, and in his junior year under Pete Carroll, Palmer and the Trojans finished 6-6.
In a city with no NFL team, Palmer symbolized a boulevard of broken dreams. "He came in as the golden boy and for four years he was the goat," Zampese says. "Can you even imagine what he went through? The media? The fans? The pressure? Good lord."
Palmer seriously considered skipping his senior year to turn pro. Though he'd underachieved, his size and arm made him the third or fourth QB on most NFL draft boards. But after meeting with Chow, the Trojans offensive coordinator, he decided to give it one more year. Chow was exactly what Palmer needed: part offensive genius, part surrogate father. The first time they met, they talked for three hours without discussing football. Like most pro-style offenses, Chow's USC scheme depended largely on anticipation. To stay a step ahead of the defense, the ball is thrown to an empty spot, requiring the quarterback and his receivers to trust that both ball and target will arrive exactly where they're supposed to be.
That trust wasn't always there. In the third game of Palmer's senior season, USC trailed Kansas State 27-20 with just over a minute to play. Palmer took the Trojans to the K-State 33-yard line, but on fourth-and-15 he appeared to have misfired badly on a pass to wideout Keary Colbert. In fact, it was Colbert who misread the safety and turned the wrong way. When quizzed by reporters afterward, Palmer took the fall. The rest of the team listened in, sheepishly, until Colbert snapped to and ran over: "No, no, no … he's lying! It was my fault. My fault!"
That day, something changed at USC. The Trojans split the next two games, then reeled off eight straight wins, including a 38-17 drubbing of Iowa in the Orange Bowl. During the streak, Palmer locked up the Heisman with five 300-yard passing games as SC averaged 41.5 points a game. The Trojans finished 11—2, ranked fourth in the nation, setting the stage for their current dynasty. "You always hear that you have to go through the deepest valley to get to the highest peak," Palmer says. "But really, how many people go through what we did at USC and still get to the top? Not many. In my short career, that's what I'm most proud of."
Not running from the challenge in Cincinnati must be a close second. When Palmer interviewed potential agents, many based their pitch on creating an exit strategy similar to the one Eli Manning used to escape the Chargers. But fighting the system has never been Palmer's style. Chow had always complained, only half-jokingly, that just once he wanted to see Palmer get angry with him for a bad play call. "He's a humble, pleaser-type person, ya know?" says Palmer's dad, Bill, a financial planner. Adds Zampese: "During that time at USC, he never once opened his mouth to blame or whine. Knowing our situation, we absolutely loved that quality about him."
And as it turned out, the situation in Cincy was perfect. Lewis decreed that instead of asking their No. 1 pick to save the franchise, the Bengals' would do right by their No. 1 pick. Two months before the draft the coach had named Kitna the team's starter. Lewis insists the choice was based on the Bengals need for some early success after so much failure. But Kitna didn't just take pressure off Palmer. He mentored his designated replacement, becoming a huge factor in Palmer's growth. One of the few times Palmer has shown any public emotion was in response to a report this season that the Jets might trade for Kitna. "I'm not happy at all," he growled. "Jon's a guy I can't afford to lose right now."
Palmer went all of 2003 without taking a snap. He found himself constantly wondering: can I fit a curl in under Cover 2? Can I pass against nickel coverage? Can I run a two-minute drill? His field command needed so much work that he used to practice calling out plays to himself as he walked around his suburban Cincinnati home. "Until you do it," he says, "you just don't know if you've got what it takes."
Of course, all rookies have doubts. Palmer was just honest about them. Billed by some as the next Troy Aikman, he refused to see himself anywhere near that level. Even though like Aikman, he'd achieved college glory in LA. Even though like Aikman, he was the No. 1 pick. "He seemed almost nonhuman to me," says Palmer, who as a kid used to attend Dallas' training camp when it was in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "He seemed so much more special than everyone else. I just didn't think I was that special."
The flip side of the eager-to-please young man was sometimes an elite athlete who was unassuming to the point of invisibility. But Palmer's lack of bravado reinforced the Bengals' belief that they were right in not throwing him to the Ravens. They would not risk the Tim Couch syndrome: a talented young QB with no supporting cast, body and spirit crushed to the point where he (and the team's salary cap) never recover. Instead, Lewis rebuilt the Bengals with an eye toward Palmer's ascension. He revamped the defense into the swarming Cover 2 he used in Baltimore. He drafted Iowa guard Eric Steinbach to anchor the left side of the offensive line. And he locked up Pro Bowl back Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson and wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh to give Palmer weapons.
From the time Lewis named Palmer his starter in March 2004, the QB was flanked by Kitna on one shoulder and Zampese on the other. With a year to prepare, playbook terms like "370'" went from a jumbled matrix of memorized rules, routes, coverages and tendencies to simple, clear pictures in his mind. "Guys were still flying around everywhere and scaring the crap out of me," Palmer says. "Only I started to understand exactly where everyone was going."
He started speaking up in meetings, pointing out schemes and fronts that coaches forgot to cover. Just as his teammates had at USC, the team took to Palmer's poised, responsible style. They accept that he's so unassuming, he's a guy whose closest friends are from his high school hoops team and whose wife, Shaelyn Fernandes, was his college sweetheart. They even tolerate his only visible quirk: a bizarre compulsion about passing accuracy. Palmer can't just pick up a ball and play catch—it has to be a game to 10 with two points for hitting the face mask and one for hitting the numbers. And he can't just toss the ball aside after a drill; he has to pick out an orange cone, a watercooler or a blocking pad 50 yards away, and nail it with a spiral. He is never satisfied.
Last November, Palmer talked Chad Johnson into a road trip 100 miles up I-74 to watch the Colts play the Vikings on Monday Night Football. He'd never seen Peyton Manning live. Sitting in Edgerrin James' seats, the Bengals battery became mesmerized by Manning's interaction with Marvin Harrison. QB and wideout talked constantly: before and after the play, away from the ball, on the bench, en route to the locker room. Not every exchange was pleasant, but that night they hooked up six times in a 31-28 win to become the most prolific quarterback-receiver combo in NFL history. With his own eyes, Palmer saw that their game was about the same things he'd learned at USC: anticipation, trust, communication, leadership. Maybe, Palmer realized, he was a lot closer to special than he thought.
Three weeks later, he tossed 4 TDs in a 58-48 shootout win against the Browns, and he's been a highlight fixture ever since: a 35-yarder to Houshmandzadeh to set up a score in this season's 27-13, opening-week win at Cleveland; a 70-yarder to Johnson 52 seconds into a 37-8 romp over Minnesota; an 18-yard TD to Johnson in Chicago that he keyholed between the right hand of Bears corner Charles Tillman and the left hand of safety Mike Brown. "The perfect throw," Zampese says. "Only with Carson, we get to see it over and over and over again."
On the ride home from that MNF game in Indy, Palmer's darkened truck remained quiet most of the way. But as the Cincinnati skyline came into view, he turned to Johnson. "They don't have anything we don't have," Palmer said of Manning and Harrison. "We just need to keep working. They're the best, but we can be that good too."
There wasn't a hint of doubt in his voice.