CINCINNATI OH - DECEMBER 05: Carson Palmer #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass during the NFL game against the New Orleans Saints at Paul Brown Stadium on December 5 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. The Saints won 34-30. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
With apologies to Bengals fans, I am not very interested in your opinion of Carson Palmer. It's not only that fans are inclined to struggle separating rational analysis and love for their team, or that Palmer specifically has become a lightning rod because his decline has coincided with the decline of the Bengals. It is, rather, that watching a team on Sunday and committing to an opinion by Monday is not a very sound method of analysis. That doesn't mean I know more about Palmer than Bengals fans. I certainly do not. It only means I would rather count on my on observation and not the cacophony of fan opinion.
So I watched a couple games: Saints at Bengals and Steelers at Bengals; Two excellent defenses and two quality performances by Palmer. Not necessarily a representative sample, but enough to get a feel for Palmer's tools, surrounding talent and coaching. So let's talk about those three subjects, mindful that this is far from comprehensive.
Palmer still has plenty of arm strength. It is an understatement to say he can make all the throws. That phrase is itself kind of misleading. Here's a better way to put it: Palmer can pass 20 yards down the field on a line, he can zip passes without perfect mechanics, and can throw bombs under pressure. I read that Tim Hasselbeck said Matt Hasselbeck's wounded duck to Cameron Morrah may have been the best pass of Matt's career. Well, it certainly wasn't. It was a gutsy pass that worked because Roman Harper choked on the double move. This pass, which traveled 40 yards in the air, was made with James Farrior striking him head on, and that dropped over Terrell Owens' outside shoulder to beat coverage by Bryant McFadden, is superior in every way. It isn't a play the defines greatness, but it does hint at it.
Palmer sometimes throws an ugly pass. That is, it wobbles and bucks. But though ugly it isn't slow. Palmer can be inaccurate and his passes sometimes sail high. Never good. But he isn't chronically inaccurate. It's just not a particular strength.
He moves well in the pocket but isn't any kind of scrambler. He looks like he could scramble, just never has. The important detail is though Palmer's knee was torn to shreds some years back, he doesn't look lumbering or gun shy.
Palmer clearly has a mastery of the offense. He looks like, for lack of a better way to put it, a franchise quarterback. He doesn't compulsively check down but does check down appropriately. He surveys the field, and seems to have a good grasp of primary and secondary reads. His timing isn't perfect, but, well let's now talk about his surrounding talent.
Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley, Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard comprise a pretty good mix of accomplished, promising and/or steady receivers. Owens and Ochocinco are both fringe number one guys. They are big, skillful, read coverage and adjust routes. Solid, veteran stuff. Neither create many yards after the catch anymore. Owens has a little more power and long strider speed. Ocho, well, his 33 yard reception against the Saints is a pretty good example: Palmer steps up out of pressure and lobs a pass between double coverage. Ochocinco receives behind both defenders, turns and sprints up field. He staggers a little after the reception, but that isn't terribly important to me. What I notice is the total lack of get-away speed. Roman Harper and Darren Sharper are able to recover and track him down with relative ease. Once upon a time, Harper had 4.58 speed. How fast Sharper remains is anyone's guess. Neither is fast, nevertheless.
Despite their name recognition, Owens and Ochocinco is not one of the best pairs of wide receivers in the NFL. Leonard is a good receiver. Scott looks like he has the potential but isn't heavily involved. Benson is neither very able nor very inclined. Shipley is a made to order slot receiver and compares to Brandon Stokley -- a bit less tough and a bit quicker. Gresham is very talented but very raw even for a rookie. It's a group that is, well, adequate.
The line is pretty similar. Recently fired offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski runs a vertical passing game that attempts to build through the run, but not from play action, which is a bit weird. The line is full of big bodies that push the pile. Maulers. Guys that do not move particularly well and can be boom or bust as pass blockers. Cincinnati uses a lot of three wide receiver and single tight end formations. The tight end played quite a bit alongside left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth is hard working and not glaringly bad, but suboptimal for sure. Not too quick, not too athletic and susceptible to edge rush. Kind of an overqualified right tackle.
Overall, there isn't a ton of standout talent, but apart from right tackle, there isn't a standout weakness either. It's a solid group with the reputation of something better.
One thing that stuck out, and this is an observation, is just how low profile Bratkowski was and how hands off Marvin Lewis seemed about the offense. There was that feeling of the inmates running the asylum. Both Owens and Ochocinco were very vocal. After Palmer missed Ochocinco on a long pass over the middle, Whitworth (presumably) had to separate Ochocinco and Palmer, yelling at Ochocinco to get back to his spot (flanker). Shortly afterward, Ochocinco took himself out of the game. There didn't seem to be any controversy or repercussions. I can not, honestly, ever remember seeing Bratkowski.
Another thing that stuck out, and again this observation from a limited viewing, is Marvin Lewis. He seems like a nice guy. Accountable. And watching the Bengals defense work, he definitely has an eye for front seven talent. But he also seems flustered and overwhelmed; frustrated when he should be fiery; indecisive, nervous even.
The Saints pulled ahead 34-30 with 34 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. That play pushed New Orelans win probability to 94%, and so it wasn't like Lewis blundered away certain victory. However, what followed was pretty staggering. Bernard Scott returned the ball to the Bengals 49. Palmer threw and Leonard received behind two pulling linemen and ran for 14. That put Cincinnati at the New Orleans 37. 14 seconds remained on the clock. Cincinnati had one time out. Instead of calling it immediately and taking two to three shots at the end zone, Lewis held off. He wanted Palmer to spike the ball, kill the clock and preserve the time out. He later said that he wanted to preserve the time out so that Palmer could throw toward the middle of the field. Well, six seconds later, Palmer had to call the time out. Eight seconds remained. Clock mismanagement had cost Cincinnati both time and their final time out. Roman Harper sacked Palmer on the next play and ended the game.
There is this shot, after Palmer has furiously attempted to rally his team to the line, the offense puttering, some complying some not, Palmer finally forced to call the time out, where Palmer is standing near Lewis and, well, you interpret it:
Anyway, the question is less is Lewis a good coach, is Bratkowski a good coordinator, and more is Palmer still happy to be a Bengal? Obviously not. Is he still talented? I would answer very much so, among the most talented quarterbacks in football. Has his surrounding talent masked his still very good performance? Maybe so, maybe not. It isn't a gifted unit, and its profile overshadows its ability, but it's also not starved for talent.
So, what would it cost to pry him away and should Seattle even bother?