In rally, Palmer aired his potential

Bengals: In leading a comeback against the Ravens last season, Carson Palmer showed the ability that has the team thinking about the playoffs.

Pro Football

August 19, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Carson Palmer came of age last Dec. 5 in Baltimore when he played a game for the ages.

That was the day he authored a shocking comeback to beat the Ravens and give the Cincinnati Bengals a jolt of credibility.

The jolt came with the Bengals trailing by 17 in the fourth quarter. Like magic, Palmer threw for 200 of his 382 passing yards -- and three touchdowns -- to nail a 27-26 victory. To top it off, he marched the Bengals 60 yards in eight plays and 102 seconds to the winning field goal.

With some reluctance, the Bengals' quarterbacking prodigy revisited that catalytic moment during training camp.

"Offensively, it was a gauge for us to see that we can be down against a great defense, against great personnel, and come firing back and be explosive," Palmer said.

"It gave us some confidence and showed us what we were capable of doing and how good we are when we're firing on all cylinders. And it showed us who we can be as an offense."

That was the day everything changed for the Bengals, for Palmer and for the Ravens.

The Ravens lurched through the final month and missed the playoffs.

The Bengals made a late charge to reach .500.

And Palmer's season ended the next week at New England when he strained a knee ligament in the third quarter against the Patriots.

But that December showing, combined with an offseason of defensive tailoring, has vaulted the Bengals into playoff contention in the AFC North. Tonight's preseason game against the defensive-stout Washington Redskins at FedEx Field will provide another gauge of their postseason credentials.

After 14 straight non-playoff seasons, this is rarefied air for the Bengals.

"A lot of media are putting this offense in a category where we haven't even gone yet," Pro Bowl tackle Willie Anderson cautioned. "We averaged 23 points a game last year, but the upper echelon teams averaged 28-30 points a game. So we really haven't done anything yet."

It's what Palmer did from midseason on last season that gave hope to the diehard Bengals fans. The first pick in the 2003 draft, Palmer didn't take a snap his rookie season. Last year, he didn't miss a snap until he was hurt in Week 14.

Once he got his feet wet, Palmer played like a veteran.

In his first seven starts, he had a passer rating of 62.6 and a completion percentage of .551. In his last six starts, he had a 96.9 rating and 68.6 percent accuracy.

Those figures were hard earned, too. Palmer played nine games against defensive teams that finished the season ranked in the NFL's top 10. He made three starts against teams that were ranked No. 1 at the time.

Against such a rugged schedule, Palmer said he reached a comfort zone the longer he played.

"It wasn't one specific moment or a specific game," he said. "It was everything. There's nothing like having experience, having four, five, six games under your belt and knowing when I could throw a curl into a certain window in a zone, or get outside the pocket.

"There are so many unknowns going into your first year [as a starter], you're not sure if you can still get away with the same stuff you got away with in the past."

Starting with coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have tried not to burden Palmer, 25, with unnecessary expectations this season.

"Carson will continue to develop," Lewis said. "He has enough presence about himself to know his job is to do his job."

Said Anderson: "I don't want other players to say, `Oh, we're going to be great because of Carson or whoever else,' because that puts added pressure on him. The man's still a second-year player who may or may not go through second-year quarterback struggles. If he doesn't, that's a plus for us. But there's still a lot of work to do."

Palmer eschews talk about passing goals -- "I don't look at stats where you throw for 5,000 yards or so many touchdowns" -- but conceded there is one set of numbers he's shooting for.

"My goal this year is to get in the playoffs," he said. "The only [personal] goal I have statistically is a ratio of four touchdowns to one interception. If you look across the league, if you have four touchdowns to one interception, chances are you're a successful team and you're in the playoffs."

Last season, Palmer had 18 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions, and the Bengals finished 8-8. Still, he may have turned a corner in that Dec. 5 win in Baltimore.

"To stare Ray Lewis in the eye and compete, if anything, it just gives you confidence," he said.

Redskins tonight

Preseason matchup: Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Washington Redskins (0-1)

Time: 8

TV/Radio: Ch. 9, Comcast SportsNet/1430 AM, 106.7 FM

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