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Bengals were bad, but Palmergate sent them reeling

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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No. 1 pick A.J. Green and No. 2 Andy Dalton will lead Cincy's latest rebuilding effort. (US Presswire)  
No. 1 pick A.J. Green and No. 2 Andy Dalton will lead Cincy's latest rebuilding effort. (US Presswire)  

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- One day in late January, the Cincinnati Bengals died. Again. Sometimes it seems as if God himself has decided the Bengals are due to look at the world through astounded, disappointed eyes. And many times, as on this day, the wounds are self-inflicted.

In the weeks before that day quarterback Carson Palmer, according to several Bengals players, began to have private conversations with a handful of teammates about his future in Cincinnati. His bitterness, he told players, had reached an all-time high. It had become unmanageable.

Then, suddenly, Palmer stopped complaining, and it was around that time players believe Palmer decided he never would be a Bengal again.

The daily transaction of NFL life continued, and for the Bengals this meant losing. Then things would get worse. Palmer spoke with Mike Brown and eventually coach Marvin Lewis. Palmer demanded a trade.

"Can we talk you out of this?" Lewis asked, according to a person close to Palmer.

The Bengals asked Palmer if he would reconsider but Palmer had clearly already made his decision. There would be no changing of his mind.

"This is Carson's way," Lewis says now. "This wasn't a grandstand. He had to do what he had to and so did we. We can't let the inmates run the asylum."

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Palmer made his trade request in late January after Cincinnati finished the season 4-12. Brown declined the request, Palmer effectively retired and that is the moment the Bengals died. Again. Palmer hasn't been seen around the team since. He'll likely never be a Bengal again.

They've seen many different forms of demise, these Bengals. The comical, the uncanny, the criminal, the tragic -- a player actually losing his life -- but the Palmer situation was one of the more symbolic. We're not here to bash. There are actually many honorable men within this franchise. There is -- and you don't see this word used in relation to the Bengals but it's true -- a certain nobility with the team. They try to fight the good fight. Sometimes, they just don't know how.

And that is reality for the Bengals.

"They both expressed profound disappointment in how the team fared last season, and in how it has generally performed during Carson's tenure with the team," Palmer's agent David Dunn said in a statement regarding the meeting between Palmer and Bengals management. "Because of the lack of success that Carson and the Bengals have experienced together, Carson strongly feels that a separation between him and the Bengals would be in the best interest of both parties."

These are the Cincinnati Bengals, and this is the type of thing that happens to them. The franchise player quits on the wings of a meaningless statement from his agent.

I spent two weeks retracing some of Palmer's footsteps -- and several days at the Bengals' camp, as well as speaking to several players privately on the phone -- but the story here isn't: Where's Carson? The story is one of perennial disappointment and how Palmer's situation stands as almost the perfect metaphor for the State of the Bengals.

Who are the Bengals? What are they? What do they want to be? How do they hope to get there? And what is it like to be what many consider the NFL's worst franchise? How bad? It's a franchise in such disarray that Palmer would rather give up his $11.5 million salary this year than play for an organization that once bear-hugged him as its star. The club since has removed every trace of him from its bloodline.

"At this camp no one has mentioned his name," Lewis says. "He's gone. Period."

It is true that Palmer has saved a great deal of money from his seasons as an NFL quarterback. A person close to Palmer estimated he has savings of $40-$50 million in cash assets alone. I'm thinking that estimate is actually quite low since in 2005 Palmer signed a deal that would have taken Palmer through the year 2014 and paid him a total of $119 million.

Nonetheless, to pass up $11.5 million out of principle is a remarkable statement about the Bengals, and that statement isn't good.

"There were split feelings about Carson in the locker room. A lot of players privately support Carson," said one Bengals player who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from management. "There are guys who wish they could afford to do what he did. Others have just let it go. They've blocked him out."

In speaking with several Bengals players this is the portrait they portray of the current state of the Bengals:

 Spirited practices.

 Hard-working coaching staff.

 Players and coaches who truly care.

 Stubborn ownership stuck in the 1970s -- polyester in a dri-fit world.

 A feeling that this year will be better.

 A fear that this year will be the same.

Publicly, the franchise is defensive about how it's portrayed in the media and that's completely understandable. When a franchise is routinely called a group of incompetent buffoons it has every right to be defensive, yes? "To say things are bad with the Bengals, that's just not the case," says Lewis. "Give us a chance. We can come back."

From the dead?

  

The survivor

Past the supersized K-Mart and strip malls, past the "Believe: Creationism" signs and near the industrial complexes that sit like metal sugar cubes is Georgetown College where the Bengals train. Lewis sits in a campus classroom, totally relaxed, and in these moments away from the cameras and crowds Lewis shows why he's the Bengals' best weapon. He's intelligent, explanatory and utterly convinced the Bengals will turn the franchise around sooner rather than later.

"Why is it crazy to think we can win this year?" he says. "We're better than last year. I see a bright future for this organization. I'm not thinking about just the past." The past. It's a weight draped around the neck of the Bengals. Since there is no such thing as a time machine they can't escape it. The players arrested for criminal acts. The tragic death of Chris Henry. The losses that have piled to historic highs. There is no need to rehash all of these things, but Lewis has seen large swaths of the ugliness since he took the job in 2003.

Last season, the Bengals brought in wide receiver Terrell Owens, who did nothing to improve the team's fortunes. When asked if there was any chance of Owens returning, Lewis said, "No. He's a free agent. An injured free agent."

Lewis maintains that while he liked Owens as a player, his signing forced the Bengals to go away from the physicality of running the ball.

"I like Terrell as a player but Terrell didn't work out for us," Lewis says. "In fact, our offense went in the other direction in terms of toughness. We got softer because we were throwing the ball more than I was comfortable with. It's my own fault. I allowed myself to get away from our character, which is running the ball and toughness."

The team also lost longtime Bengals showboat Chad Ochocinco. So, Cincinnati lost its starting quarterback, two starting wide receivers, and a good cornerback in Johnathan Joseph. They just released defensive lineman Tank Johnson.

Then, in the first preseason game against Detroit, the Bengals' defense, the strong point of the team, was torched as four Lions quarterbacks led scoring drives, angering the fan base. It was so bad Bengals players and coaches were left pleading for patience. Lineman Domata Peko told Bengals.com after the game: "My message to the fans is to keep the faith, believe. It's just one game. We're going to fix things. That's what the preseason is for: to learn from the mistakes and keep getting better. Keep being excited because we're going to have a good season."

The team is already asking for forgiveness and Lewis isn't worried?

"No because everyone feels confident in our rebuilding plan," Lewis says. "What people on the outside say isn't relevant to us."

  

The rookie

There is always hope in the NFL. It's what keeps fans of teams like the Bengals from dunking their heads in a vat of boiling oil. Hope is the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. Hope is the salary cap. Hope is remembering the Oakland Raiders were once great. Hope is quarterback Andy Dalton.

He's been embraced by the Bengals veterans, and in speaking to him after practice one moderately warm afternoon, you can understand why. Dalton is aggressively polite off the field. Only time will demonstrate if he can play football on it. He clearly understands one important thing: it would be foolish to try to replace Palmer.

"He was a great player and the thing I have to do is just be myself," he said.

Sounds simple enough, but the fact is Dalton always will be compared to Palmer. The Bengals know this. He knows this. The only way it will stop is if Dalton is successful. This is the harsh reality of football.

Dalton one day might be able to laugh at his first NFL start after he makes the Pro Bowl, or critics will use it against Dalton should he flop in Palmer's shadow. Dalton's first pass as a pro was intercepted, and later monster Detroit defensive lineman Ndomakung Suh grabbed Dalton by the upper body and slammed him to the ground -- knocking off Dalton's helmet. It was rough few plays but Dalton survived.

I ask Dalton jokingly if Suh has called to apologize. "No, I wouldn't expect him to," he smiled. The most amazing thing about Dalton is his capacity to absorb large amounts of information. After only a few weeks, it's believed he has learned most of the playbook and has a firm grasp of the protection schemes and calls. There are few rookie QBs in the NFL now who can make a similar claim.

But like every other rookie, Dalton has initially been stunned at the upgrade in speed from the college to the professional level. He gives an example of how in the pros, linebackers make the tackles on bubble screens, because their speed allows them do so. In college, defensive backs do.

Dalton has a long ways to go, but quotes like the following make you root for him: "I know I have a lot to learn but I'm getting the practice snaps. I'm studying hard and listening to everyone. But I also want to be my own guy." He brings up Palmer without prodding. "I respect what he did here but I want to create my own legacy."

  

The future

Maybe it is indeed bleak. These are, after all, the Bengals. Bleak often has been their middle name. And maybe they are due for another strange happening. A broken leg, another star quitting, another Bengal arrested. These are, after all, the Bengals.

Then you come here and talk to the players and watch the team and speak to Lewis and there's that word again -- hope. The NFL built its brand around it and the Bengals cling to it.

"Let people say what they want about us," Dalton said. "We’ll just keep working."

Maybe, for once, the Bengals will escape their own demise. Again.

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