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Newest No. 1 pick ready for challenge

CINCINNATI -- Two days after they slipped a $10 million
check into Carson Palmer's 10-inch hand, the Cincinnati Bengals got
their No. 1 pick -- along with a smidgen of respect.

The Bengals relinquished their reputation for first-round
bungling -- the Vikings took a turn on the hot seat instead -- by
having the Heisman Trophy winner already signed and delivered
Saturday.

"Any first-round pick would be a big plus for a team in that
situation,'' commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

It hasn't in the past. The Bengals have remained the NFL's worst
team in the past 12 years despite one high draft pick after
another, including first-round quarterbacks David Klingler and
Akili Smith.

They were a draft-day punch line, with commentators poised to
pounce as soon as the clock started to tick. It stopped after only
a few ticks.

Cincinnati needed less than a minute to go through the formality
of taking Palmer. Waiting backstage at Madison Square Garden, the
quarterback known for his cool demeanor was losing it.

"I was very nervous,'' Palmer said in a conference call. "It
took the suspense out of it -- I already knew. A lot of guys back
there were nervous and sweating, and I felt just as nervous as they
did.''

For once, the Bengals weren't sweating.

First-year coach Marvin Lewis made it a priority to get the
first pick signed before the draft, breaking with the team's
history of long holdouts and contract haggles.

He got his way. Palmer agreed to a deal that included a $10
million signing bonus, with another $4 million bonus due in two
years. He will make $18.25 million in the first three years through
bonuses and salary.

Palmer initially had some reservations about Cincinnati, but was
swayed by the way Lewis started to change the team's methods and
its makeup. The Bengals ruined Klingler and Smith by throwing them
into the lineup as unprepared rookies; Lewis will let Palmer sit
behind Jon Kitna and develop.

"I think it's the best thing for me and the team and the
organization,'' Palmer said. "They've made an investment in me,
and it's going to take time for me to pay back that investment. I'm
going to have to learn this offense and get used to the NFL.''

He's had a whirlwind week, flying from California to Cincinnati
to sign his contract Thursday, then heading to New York for
predraft appearances. He and other draft picks helped ring the bell
on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, when the Dow closed down
133 points.

"They were hoping we would rock the floor and bring some good
luck, but it didn't,'' he said.

Finally, he and his family gathered at the Garden to go through
the formality of the first round. After he hugged relatives, Palmer
put on the Bengals cap and unfurled the No. 9 Bengals jersey that
he got two days earlier.

"It's more than what I expected,'' he said. "There must be
1,000 fans here, and a lot of them are Jets fans. All the media and
cameras and lights -- this is the NFL and how it's going to be from
here on out.''

Maybe.

The Bengals haven't been in the NFL's spotlight for anything
other than pratfalls since 1990. During ESPN's draft show, they
once again started out as whipping boys.

Broadcaster Chris Berman said Palmer would "try to lead them
out of the dark ages.'' When New York fans booed at the outset,
Berman exclaimed, "They're booing the Bengals! You can't do that.
You can't boo the Bengals just because they haven't had a winning
season since 1990.''

Tagliabue, speaking before the draft to a group of Associated
Press Sports Editors, got a chuckle as he talked about the league's
rule blackout rule for home games that aren't sold out.

"We've reached the point where more than nine out of every 10
games are televised locally and the blackout is an issue with fewer
than 10 percent of our games,'' Tagliabue told the sports editors.
"That's a historic accomplishment. It wasn't too long ago that 25
percent of our games might be blacked out.

"Now we're down to fewer than 10 percent, so if the Bengals can
perform a little better, we'll be down to 4 percent.''

Tagliabue made sure everyone knew he was joking.