If I could pick one NFL team's draft headquarters to crash two weeks from Thursday, I'd head straight for the Queen City – and not just because of the comedic possibilities therein.
With quarterback Carson Palmer conveying he'll retire rather than play another game for the Bengals and owner Mike Brown insisting he has no intention of granting Palmer's trade request, Cincinnati's war room will be aptly named. And even though there are serious questions about each of the draft's marquee passers, I don't see how the Bengals can avoid giving into the temptation to select one of them with the fourth overall pick.
It's another unpleasant reality of Life in Lockoutland. Because free agency is on hold and teams are currently prohibited from trades or contract discussions of any kind, the Bengals are excruciatingly short on options. Their most plausible move is to talk themselves into anointing somebody (Christian Ponder? Andy Dalton? Jake Locker? Ryan Mallett?) as their quarterback of the future – then, very likely, preparing for a choppy season in which he'll likely be rushed into duty as the quarterback of the present.
"I can't tell you how many years of experience our starting quarterback will have, if any," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says. "Whoever it will be, we'll be pretty confident. It's going to be a pretty exciting thing for our football team."
Riiiiggghhhttt, in the same way that losing Steve Carell will be a pretty exciting thing for "The Office."
Look, I'm not saying Palmer – who is fed up with the lack of success he's experienced with the Bengals, according to prior comments by his agent, David Dunn – has been playing at an exceptionally high level or that the Bengals, coming off a 4-12 campaign, would have been championship contenders with him under center in 2011. Lewis, however, is the guy who just rolled into Yosemite without his hiking boots and is about to scale Half Dome in a borrowed pair of Brett Favre's(notes) Crocs.
For Cincinnati, the timing of Palmer's power play is particularly horrible. Some teams will be hurt more than others by the lockout, and the Bengals, who replaced offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski with Jay Gruden after last season, should be hoping for a mediation miracle (or a player friendly injunction from Judge Susan Nelson). Should this work stoppage extend into the summer or beyond, Lewis and his players will have reason to bemoan their fate.
Palmer hasn't spoken publicly about his desire to leave the Bengals.
Already, barring a sped-up ruling from Nelson, any hope of unloading Palmer before or during the draft for players or picks who could provide immediate help has been extinguished. Granted, I don't think Brown would have been receptive to moving Palmer anyway, but an extended staredown now seems inevitable. The closer it gets to the start of the season, the less motivated other quarterback-challenged teams will be to make a substantial trade offer for Palmer, who'd need time to acclimate himself to a new system. If the lockout drags too long past the scheduled start of training camp, forget about a trade until at least 2012.
The same logic applies when it comes to the Bengals' pursuing a veteran replacement for Palmer. Under normal conditions, Cincinnati might have already made a play for Kevin Kolb(notes), Donovan McNabb(notes), Matt Hasselbeck(notes), Kyle Orton(notes), Vince Young(notes), Marc Bulger(notes), Alex Smith, Matt Flynn(notes), or some other quarterback who has actually appeared in an NFL game. Even if the Bengals take a QB with the fourth pick, I still expect them to try to acquire an experienced player once the lockout ends, either as a stopgap or a backup.
Right now, the only other quarterbacks Cincinnati has on its roster are Dan LeFevour(notes), a discarded 2010 Bears draft pick who spent his rookie year on the Bengals' bench, and Jordan Palmer(notes), an '07 Washington Redskins draft pick with 15 career attempts. He also happens to be Carson's younger brother. Awkward.
So, after seven seasons of Palmer as the team's most prominent and visible player, get ready for a new era of Bengals football. Long gone is the promise of Cincinnati's breakthrough 2005 season, which ended abruptly with the devastating knee injury Palmer suffered in the team's playoff opener. Sources close to Palmer (who didn't return phone calls seeking comment) say he has decided he's done with the Bengals, reportedly putting his $2.1 million house on the market and setting up a standoff with an owner who probably wouldn't flinch if Brock Lesnar threatened to knock him out.
"I just know that when Carson speaks his mind and wants to do something, he does it," one Bengals player says. "And in this situation there are two stubborn people. It's kind of like two bulls just locked horns. There's no mediator for this."
Lewis, who seemed headed for a divorce with the franchise last season before surprisingly re-upping for two years in January, has resigned himself to losing Palmer's services without receiving any compensation in the near future. Even if Brown was allowed to trade the quarterback now, Lewis says the owner wouldn't yield to Palmer's demands because of the future ramifications such a capitulation could trigger.
Remember, after All-Pro wideout Chad Ochocinco(notes) (then Johnson) tried to force his way out of Cincinnati three years ago, Brown refused to budge, turning down a lucrative offer from the Redskins (a first-round pick and a conditional third-rounder that could have escalated to a first-rounder) to prove his point.
"As a general rule, you don't set any kind of precedent in those type of situations – for coaches, players, anybody," Lewis says. "You don't do it. It's not something I think any team or organization is into, as a matter of principle. It's not the NBA."
In other words, expect Brown to make Palmer, 31, follow through on his threat to retire if the Bengals don't deal him. Theoretically, Brown could squat on Palmer's rights through the 2014 season, when the quarterback's contract expires, though a year of inactivity would likely send enough of a message to make the owner amenable to considering a trade.
Given that 2012 is probably Palmer's earliest shot at freedom, isn't it worth trying to persuade him to play one final season in Cincy with the promise that the team will try to deal the quarterback a year from now? Lewis doesn't think so. "If a guy doesn't want to play," he says, "you don't want to talk him out of it."
To be fair, for all of Palmer's prodigious talent, he hasn't been at his best in recent years. After a severe injury to his throwing elbow limited him to four games in 2008, Palmer presided over a run-oriented attack in helping the Bengals to the AFC North title in 2009 but struggled in 2010, throwing 20 interceptions.
Palmer and Lewis each joined the Bengals in 2003.
"At times he played extremely well," Lewis says. "A couple of times he tried to do too much, and that hurt us. He had gotten away from that. That had been his strength in 2009."
The Bengals will have to forge a new offensive identity in 2011, as they adapt to Gruden's system and, potentially, some significant personnel changes. Halfback Cedric Benson(notes) will be a free agent once the lockout ends, and veteran wideout Terrell Owens(notes) likely won't be re-signed despite having put up good numbers last season. A source close to Ochocinco, who has a year remaining on his contract, indicated the wideout would love to get out of Cincinnati; it's not clear whether Brown is prepared to grant his wish this time.
Asked about the likelihood of Ochocinco being with the team in 2011, Lewis laughed and said, "It'll be an exciting time for our football team." Ochocinco declined to comment.
If nothing else, this should be an exciting draft. The Bengals, in the years between Boomer Esiason and Palmer, were responsible for two of the draft's most notorious quarterback busts: David Klingler (sixth overall in 1992) and Akili Smith (third overall in '99). If, as expected, top-rated quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert are gone by the time Cincinnati is on the clock, it will be fascinating to see whether Brown and Lewis decide to put their faith in another rookie or keep the franchise in limbo until the lockout ends.
I strongly suspect that the team will use that No. 4 pick on Palmer's presumed heir, but I'm not totally convinced, which is why I think crashing the Cincy war room would be so fun. As one player told me Tuesday: "Trying to predict Mike Brown's moves is like predicting the weather."
It's tough to blame Lewis for trying to sell a sunny forecast to his players, a process that began with his farewell address to the team on the day after Cincy's 2010 regular-season finale. At the time, Palmer had already expressed to the coach his desire to leave, and Lewis wasn't sure if he'd be back, either.
"I told everybody at the end of last season, 'We're faced with a challenge, but it's a good challenge,' " Lewis says. "I meant that. Well, it's all come to pass."
The question now is, who'll throw passes for the Bengals in 2011? Tune in on April 28 to see if we get an answer.