The Cincinnati Kid
Posted: October 19, 2005
It happens almost every day they are together. They can be on the practice field or playing golf or pool or basketball. Doesn't matter. "Hey, Jon," Carson Palmer will say to Jon Kitna. "Bet I can beat you." And Kitna will smile and tell him, "No way." And they'll start going at it, big kids unwilling to concede anything, whether it be making a 3-foot putt or hitting a crossbar with a football from 50 yards.
It's most intense in basketball. "That's a foul," Kitna says. "It's not," Palmer says. They glare at each other and play even harder. "He cheats," Kitna says. None of the bets ever seem to be resolved, either; the two are always grumbling about the unfinished business.
Their extreme competitiveness has led to this. "He's my best friend on the team," Kitna says. "He's a role model for me," Palmer says.
And to this: Without Kitna as part of Team Palmer, the support group Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has assembled to develop his quarterback protege, the stunningly quick emergence of Carson Palmer after a mere 18 NFL starts would not have happened this rapidly. Along with Ben Roethlisberger, Palmer has distanced himself from the other young quarterbacks taken early in the first round of the past four drafts. Even more telling, he looms as the saving face of a franchise that had wallowed so long in mediocrity. He has given the Bengals consistency and glamour. And he has gotten Cincinnati excited again about football -- no easy feat.
The Bengals haven't had a winning season since 1990. Only three times since then, including the past two seasons under Lewis, have they even finished .500. Standing now at 5-1, they have the team's best start since 1988, when they won their first six games. Stores are having problems keeping in stock T-shirts sporting Lewis' training camp slogan: Do Your Job. It's typical Cincinnati -- nothing flashy, just a reflection of Midwestern work ethic.
At 33, Kitna can relate to that. Hard work as much as skill has enabled him to carve out a nine-year career that began as an undrafted practice squad player with Seattle in 1996. He's a hardscrabble quarterback, short on elite talent but unwilling to concede to his weaknesses. In Palmer, 25, he sees everything he's not: An incredibly gifted 6-5, 230-pound prototype, a Heisman winner, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, a man created to be a star. It is Kitna who first understood the depth of the immense competitiveness that fires Palmer. It's certainly well-disguised. Palmer describes himself as laid-back, and it's an accurate surface tag. But Kitna found this blanket label misleading, a disservice; if you equate laid-back with lazy or complacent, you've misjudged Palmer.
"He will never tell you this, but he wants to be really, really good," Kitna says. "It drives him. He wants to be the best at everything he does, whether it be football or pool or golf. That's why it is fun being with him. Neither of us will concede anything. He's never going to be satisfied as a football player."
Each of the essential figures surrounding Palmer -- offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and Kitna -- have well-defined roles that have benefited from continuity (they have been with Palmer from the start) and Lewis' ability to reshape a floundering franchise, giving it steely direction and instilling an unbending demand for excellence that has been absent for so long. The turmoil and instability that at times have surrounded Joey Harrington and David Carr and Byron Leftwich and Kyle Boller have been missing from Team Palmer, and it shows in Palmer's progress.
Certainly, it also helps that Palmer has a decent line and playmakers in wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and running back Rudi Johnson. But if you want to know why some young quarterbacks succeed in today's NFL while others stay on a path of mediocrity, look no further than how the Bengals have groomed Palmer -- and how essential it has been for him to have a veteran peer such as Kitna as a guide.
The early results have been impressive. In each of his past nine starts, including three games from 2004, Palmer has posted a quarterback rating of 100-plus. That ties the league record set last season by Peyton Manning, who was in his eighth year as a starter. Over his nine-game run, Palmer has thrown 22 touchdowns, been intercepted only seven times and has completed 74.1 percent of his passes, a dazzling number that becomes even more striking considering the vertical nature of the Bengals' passing approach. The NFL's average quarterback rating last year was 82.8; Palmer's is 114.4 for those nine games, and Cincinnati is 7-2 in that stretch. Since the middle of last season, he has been among the league's best quarterbacks.
"Carson is in a really healthy environment," says CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots, a former NFL defensive back. "It's not always about the player himself; it is many times about the garden he is playing in and who is tending the garden. The coach and the system, the guys grooming him. Toss in Kitna and the planets were aligned for him."
At the end of the 2003 season, his first as Bengals coach, Lewis already knew he would make a change at quarterback. And he knew it would cause a stir. After all, Kitna had been an instrumental part of an 8-8 record, Cincinnati's best since 1996 and a huge leap over the 2-14 embarrassment of 2002. Palmer did not play as a rookie. It was part of Lewis' plan. This was a franchise with so many problems he didn't want to add quarterback to the list. The veterans loved Kitna -- some had told Lewis he didn't need to draft a quarterback in 2003 -- and letting him fill the position would give Palmer time to learn.
But Lewis saw things in practice -- the strength of Palmer's arm, his improving knowledge of the game -- to nudge along his decision. With Kitna, there were limits to the passing scheme, particularly on deep routes. Palmer's arm would remove the restrictions, expand the offense and allow the Bengals to take full advantage of their talented receivers. Lewis felt this was essential; as a defensive coach, he feared most those offenses that consistently threw over the top of the secondary. For the Bengals to grow offensively, they needed Palmer's special skills.
They already had pushed his rookie development by instituting a special segment on Thursdays in which he would run six plays from that week's game plan, just as if he were the starter. And each week he prepared a tape breakdown of the upcoming defense for team consumption.
Still, Lewis was right; his switch to Palmer created talk show fodder before the 2004 season. But, internally, Kitna took a pivotal step in helping Palmer make the transition. Too often, with playing time at stake, veteran quarterbacks refuse to mentor younger rivals. But soon after Palmer and Kitna had been told of the change, the quarterbacks talked during a conference in California. "We are going to be totally supportive of you," Kitna told Palmer. "We will do everything we can to make your job easier. We aren't going to hold anything against you." Instead of trying to take away his job, Kitna would become Palmer's biggest fan.
"That's because Jon Kitna is a beautiful human being," says Bratkowski, who coached Kitna in Seattle from 1996-98. "He couldn't be vindictive; it's against his nature. His help may be the most important factor in Carson's development. Jon is like a coach; in many cases, he is smarter than a lot of coaches I have worked with in terms of understanding football. He is capable of keeping Carson calm and telling him things as an experienced quarterback sees them."
This is how it works for Palmer. Zampese, son of famed NFL offensive mind Ernie Zampese, coaches him through quarterback meetings and one-on-one interaction. The preparation starts Tuesday morning when they begin delving into the game plan. By Friday, Zampese and Bratkowski are aware of what plays Palmer likes, what receivers he favors on certain patterns and what chunks of the plan are uncomfortable. "Ken has shown me how to study the game, break down a defense and how to prepare your mind for Sunday," says Palmer. "We work well together because he is anal and I am laid- back, and it clashes, but it brings out the best in both of us." Palmer and Zampese both attended USC, Zampese as a graduate assistant; Zampese also young is enough, at 38, to blend well with his quarterback. "We are Pacific time zone guys," Zampese says, laughing.
Bratkowski, whose dad, Zeke, is a former NFL quarterback, devises the game plan. In his 14th year as an NFL coach, he is the wise and aggressive mentor, plotting the bigger picture of how to grow Palmer, giving him enough each week to challenge him but not overwhelm him. And good thing, too. "I'd come up to the line last year thinking, 'Oh, God, what is going to happen to me now?'" Palmer says. Everything was a blur, so complex and unnerving. But beginning with his 10th start, against the Steelers, it all changed. He had thrown 12 interceptions and just seven touchdowns in his first nine starts; over his last four (an injured knee forced him to sit out the final three weeks), he had 11 touchdowns and six interceptions and began the string of 100-plus ratings. It has only been better this year: 13 touchdowns and two interceptions and the league's second-best rating: 113.6.
Not even Palmer can fully explain the turnaround. For sure, the game gradually slowed down. He started to recognize defenses faster, anticipate blitzes better, make quicker decisions. But still ... "We had seen progress," Bratkowski says, "but it was one step forward and two back, and we anticipated that is what would continue. Then all of a sudden he got comfortable enough so the ton of ability he has started to show up." This season, he's not thinking as much, and he's reacting more. And he's better able to fix on-field problems as the clock is ticking instead of waiting between series.
All the while Kitna, intense, inquisitive, a future high school coach, continues to serve as a combination counselor and relief valve. He is the first guy Palmer usually talks to coming off the field, and he is the one who will go to Lewis during the week about issues bothering Palmer. Lewis is prodding Palmer to voice his own concerns, but that's not easy for this unaffected, unassuming man.
It's that personality that also has helped accelerate Palmer's advancement. He gladly welcomes advice, sincerely embraces coaching. Last year at camp, the Bengals filmed his reaction after every practice play. They wanted to show him how sometimes his body language wasn't good, that he lingered too long on his mistakes, wasn't in command. Now during games, he is a flat-liner emotionally no matter the situation, showing a calmness his coaches believe is essential to his growth. "Brady-cool," Wilcots says.
It's just the way Palmer goes about life. At a golf tournament, he and Lewis were playing with a corporate chief executive. The man marveled at Palmer's natural abilities. "I see it every day," Lewis told him. "But you would never know he is so good at everything. He just shows up, performs great and sort of slips out the door."
Well, not exactly. Lewis works his players as hard as any coach in the league. On a recent Thursday, Palmer began his day with a 7:30 a.m. weightlifiting session; he didn't leave for home until almost 6. This season, the Bengals installed a coaching station in his home so he could study tape just like the staff. "In college, it's football for three hours a day during the week," he says. "Here, it's lots of long days. I had to get used to that. Sometimes, the last thing I want to do when I go home is study my call sheet for two more hours. But I know if I don't, I will fall behind. I'm sure Peyton and Brett Favre still are thinking, 'If I don't put in the work, those young guys will catch me.'" During this past offseason, Palmer lost 20 pounds on his own; his coaches want him to be less reluctant to move away from pressure, and he knew being lighter would aid his mobility. He and Zampese also broke down 40 or so NFL defensive alignments; Palmer learned the responsibilities of every defender within all of them. That process has helped reduce his anxiety and increase the precision of his audibles.
"But you don't want to overload Carson," says Kitna. "He is more of a feel-for-the-game player. I think his greatest asset is he doesn't overthink the game." He's also rare in another way. He duplicates his mechanics play after play, and that's creating the foundation of his keen accuracy. And he's lucky, too. He has a head coach who wants his offense to continue to attack. Each week, Lewis prods his offensive coaches to keep throwing downfield, a quarterback's dream.
"Carson already is on that level of quarterbacks just behind the Mannings, Favres, Bradys and McNabbs of the league," Texans general manager Charley Casserly says. "You can see the skills, particularly the accuracy, which you don't always get so early with a young quarterback."
Yet, Palmer says, "I can get so much better," he says. "He will grow the next four or five years in terms of game situations," says Bratkowski. "He needs to learn to understand we are not going to score two touchdowns on one play," says Lewis. He also must learn to deal with the outgrowths of success, including the high-strung Johnson, whose emergence at receiver has led to increased double-teams. No matter the extra attention, Johnson still thinks he is always open. During the Week 5 loss at Jacksonville, he expressed, with gestures, his unhappiness to Palmer on the sideline about his lack of opportunities.
At least Kitna is predictable. "Jon just understands how the NFL works, how to prepare, the two-minute drill, all the parts of playing quarterback," Palmer says. "It could have been an ugly situation when I got the job, but he has made it incredibly comfortable."
Now, it's only ugly when they compete. "Give him a break?" Palmer asks. "No way. But I'll give him credit. He won't back off. He'll learn one day." And then he laughs. Kitna will love that one.
Senior writer Paul Attner covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.