Since the news broke in January that QB Carson Palmer wanted out of Cincinnati, the focus has been on whether the Bengals will trade him or hold on to his rights.
I've been pondering something else. If, indeed, Palmer is done playing for the Bengals, how will we remember his career in Cincinnati?
Let's go back to the start.
It is easy to forget that Palmer wasn't a surefire, slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick for Cincinnati in 2003. At the NFL Scouting Combine that year, head coach Marvin Lewis indicated Palmer, QB Byron Leftwich, WR Charles Rogers and CB Terence Newman were at the top of the Bengals' draft board.
Of those four players, Palmer has been most valuable pro, so give the Bengals credit for isolating the appropriate selection out of that group. (More on this subject in a moment.)
The Bengals were conservative with Palmer early. He did not take a single snap as a rookie, before succeeding Jon Kitna as starter in 2004. Palmer showed promise in his first season as a starter before quickly ascending to the elite at the position in '05, throwing 32 TD passes and only 12 interceptions as he led the Bengals to the AFC North title. Late in the season, he signed a contract extension through 2014 that reportedly was worth up to $118.75 million.
Ten days later, the Bengals hosted the Steelers in the wild-card round. On his team's second offensive play, Palmer hit Chris Henry for a 66-yard reception, but Steelers DE Kimo von Oelhoffen hit Palmer low, with the quarterback suffering torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, among other injuries.
Remarkably, Palmer returned in time for the 2006 season, started every game, and threw for 4,035 yards. However, the Bengals faded late, losing their final three games, though Palmer put them in position to win the season finale vs. Pittsburgh before Shayne Graham missed a potential game-winning field goal.
The Bengals again missed the playoffs in '07, and the following season, Palmer would play just four games before leaving with season-ending right elbow injuries. The elbow healed without surgery, and Palmer, once again, returned for a full season of starts in '09. However, the offense was re-tooled around the running game and defense, a formula that worked wonderfully, as the Bengals swept their division rivals and won the AFC North. Palmer threw 21 TD passes but gained just 193.4 passing yards per game, a career-low over a full season.
Finally, Palmer had another shot at a postseason start, but with Jets CB Darrelle Revis blanketing Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco, Palmer struggled, completing 18-of-36 passes for 146 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Cincinnati's 24-14 loss.
In the aftermath, the Bengals bolstered their receiving corps and opened up the offense. Terrell Owens proved to be an able complement to Ochocinco, and the Bengals' passing game was improved. But wins were few and far between, as Cincinnati faded to a 4-12 mark. Palmer threw 26 TD passes, but also 20 interceptions.
Considering Palmer's legacy
Eight years ago, the Bengals picked Palmer No. 1 overall. Was it the right move? I say yes — he was the top-rated quarterback in his class, and the Bengals needed a franchise cornerstone. However, Palmer clearly hasn't been the best player out of the '03 class. Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Bears LB Lance Briggs, Chargers TE Antonio Gates, Texans WR Andre Johnson, Steelers S Troy Polamalu, Ravens OLB-DE Terrell Suggs, Vikings DT Kevin Williams and Cowboys TE Jason Witten are among the current standouts from this class, with Gates, Johnson and Polamalu at the top of the list. In fact, it can be argued that Palmer hasn't been the best quarterback from '03, with Tony Romo, who went undrafted out of Eastern Illinois in '03, emerging as an above-average starter for Dallas.
Also, Palmer isn't the top quarterback in Bengals franchise history. Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason outrank him, and neither was a first-round pick.
Of course, Palmer has an important place in club lore, and his play earlier in his career was very impressive. Don't forget that the best Palmer-led teams could put Pittsburgh and Baltimore on their heels like few other clubs. With Ochocinco, the late Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Palmer had a talented three-WR tandem to work with as his career began to take off in '05. Henry never lived up to the promise he showed as a rookie in '05, but Ochocinco and Houshmandzadeh formed a strong tandem for the majority of Palmer's Bengals career.
So what is Palmer's Bengals legacy? There is good and bad and the in-between. He was the right pick at the right time for Cincinnati. He was brilliant early, but not as much so in his later years. He had rotten injury luck. He worked hard to return from some significant injuries. He quarterbacked the Bengals to two playoff appearances and had them on the doorstep of another. Nevertheless, the club still hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 postseason.
Now, he wants out.
"Because of the lack of success that Carson and the Bengals have experienced together," Palmer's agent, David Dunn, said in a statement released in January, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, "Carson strongly feels that a separation between him and the Bengals would be in the best interest of both parties."
Dunn's statement noted that Palmer "could not respect the Brown family any more than he does or be more appreciative of what the Browns have done for him and his wife Shaelyn and his family."
This is important. The Bengals have not treated Carson Palmer shabbily. I'm not seeing it. He has been compensated well. His supporting cast was solid on the whole and strong when he played his best. There have been better situations for a quarterback, but there have been worse ones.
It is Palmer's prerogative to try and force the Bengals' hand. But to point fingers and say "Same old Bengals" is to miss the point. Until now, Palmer had done well by the Bengals and the Bengals have done well by him. The Bengals can be an easy target, but not here.
In April, Cincinnati drafted TCU QB Andy Dalton in Round Two, and he likely will start if Palmer doesn't return. This is intriguing but not ideal for the Bengals. However, unless Palmer changes his mind, the Bengals probably have to turn to Dalton.
Indeed, how we remember Palmer might come down to whether the Bengals can trade him and use the assets to rebuild. So in the end, it all comes back to the Bengals' next move. Do they trade Palmer, or do they stand pat and send a message that they won't be held hostage by any one player?
All we know is this wasn't the ending anyone wanted when the Bengals drafted Palmer, then signed him to that huge contract, one that runs until he is 35, a little more than 3½ years from now.