Picture purr-fect

Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports
ROOKIE REPORT
For all the talk about Kansas City's Derrick Johnson and Cincinnati's Odell Thurman, Oakland Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison has been a pleasant surprise. The third-round pick from San Diego State was inserted into the starting lineup the second game of the season and leads all rookies with 36 tackles in four games.
DRAFT WATCH
Scouts are keeping a close eye on Arizona State wide receiver Derek Hagan, who is playing himself into the first round of the 2006 draft. The 6-foot-2 senior has 36 catches for 593 yards and five touchdowns, including 10 receptions for 162 yards last week against top-ranked USC. Earlier in the season, he had seven receptions for 95 yards against then-No. 5 LSU.
BEHIND EVERY GOOD COACH
Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Hudson Houck is once again pulling together a below-average unit. In three games, the Dolphins have allowed Gus Frerotte to be sacked only twice. In their last game, Houck's line held the Panthers to zero sacks and opened holes for rookie Ronnie Brown's 132 yards on 23 carries.
MUST READS
1. Former No. 2 overall pick LaVar Arrington appears to be playing his final season with the Washington Redskins.
Read
2. Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf says coach Mike Tice isn't going anywhere.
Read
3. The NFL is officially fining Ricky Williams almost half of his salary this season.
Read
4. The Baltimore Sun wonders whether Jamal Lewis' struggles on the field are tied to stalled contract talks.
Read
5. Despite all the trade speculation, the New York Jets say they won't be dealing for another quarterback this season.
Read

On a sunbathed practice field last August, Jon Kitna squinted at a trash can about 20 yards down the Cincinnati Bengals' practice field. He turned to Carson Palmer and smiled.

You knew what was coming before Kitna even cocked his arm. One motion later, he looped a football – perfect as a McDonald's arch – into the bottom of the barrel. Palmer cheered, then quickly attempted to follow suit, throwing a ball off the side of the can. He tried again, overshooting his target and almost hitting a fan. His third attempt clanged out. Short. Long. Left. Right. By the time he was done, Palmer had missed all 16 attempts.

In hindsight, it was a unique moment. With Palmer boasting a ridiculous 71.8 completion percentage through four games, it may be a while before we see this quarterback throw 16 clunkers on a single day. That might explain a little about Cincinnati's seemingly unreal 4-0 start – during which the Bengals have feasted on teams with a combined record of 3-10. While Palmer has elevated himself into the league's elite, his team's stature is still in question.

"We still have a lot to prove," Palmer said. "We haven't been in a game where we've had to come back from behind yet. We haven't been in any games where we have to hold on to a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. We've been fortunate enough to jump out early against some teams, but we still have a ton to prove to ourselves and the rest of this league. There's a lot of respect given our way, and we still feel we need to earn some respect because there are still some doubters."

The Bengals could raise a lot of eyebrows this weekend, when they go to Jacksonville to face a Jaguars team that most expect to be a factor in the AFC playoff picture. With a staunch defense and a respectable offense, the Jaguars pose a more complete threat than any of the Bengals' opponents this season. That's why Sunday's game could be the next major pillar of legitimacy coach Marvin Lewis has been seeking.

Lewis has a pretty solid foundation already, with a fast start and an offense that ranks third in the NFL. But like most of Tony Dungy's teams in Indianapolis, Lewis is a defensive coach with an offense that's ahead of the rest of the team curve. Just how far ahead the offense is remains to be seen. Though Lewis' pride and joy has forced a league-high 17 turnovers (and two others that were nullified by penalties), they have come at the expense of three inept offenses (Minnesota, Chicago and Houston) and one average one (Cleveland).

At the very least, the defense has seen a vast improvement over last year. Due in large part to coaching changes, maturation and the additions of veteran defensive tackle Bryan Robinson and rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman, Cincinnati's rush defense has jumped to 15th this season, compared to 26th last season. And last week's 16-10 win over Houston was just the latest testimonial to the unit's opportunistic play, with the defense forcing a fumble late in the fourth quarter to essentially seal the win.

"The defense has given us every advantage we've needed so far this season," Palmer said. "And then there's the tempo of our offense. We're always trying to wear defenses out because of the great shape we're in. We know that when we get to the third and fourth quarters, we're tiring people out. The defense keeps giving us the ball back, and we're staying on our guys to keep rolling."

The Bengals have done so with an offense that has as much balance as any in the league. Cincinnati has all the trappings, with a blossoming quarterback-running back combination in Palmer and Rudi Johnson; a strong trio of wideouts in Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry; and flexible depth with pass-receiving backs Chris Perry and Jeremi Johnson.

All those pieces have sped along Palmer's growth, which recently has included the go-ahead to make calls at the line of scrimmage. Really, he's been in an advanced state of maturation since last year's victorious 58-48 scoring orgy over Cleveland. Palmer threw a career-high four touchdowns in that game and – according to the coaching staff – began making decisions more quickly and correctly. That win also was the first of Palmer's string of seven consecutive starts with a quarterback rating of better than 100. During the streak, he has completed more than 70 percent of his passes five times and compiled an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

"[The speed of the game] has slowed down a little bit for me," Palmer said. "Definitely, comparing where I am now to where I was at this point last year, the game has gotten a lot slower and I've gotten better at seeing things unfold. But I'm still not where I need to be. I still need to feel things more quickly and see things quicker, and hopefully as we get to the end of the year, things will really start slowing down for me.

"You watch film, you see a lot of dropped balls. But you don't see any dropped balls when we're playing. … We have great schemes going in to keep moving the ball and not rely on 40- and 50-yard plays. We rely on four, five, six yards a pop."

Now the Bengals must prove they can be contenders in the AFC playoff hunt and, after that, a Super Bowl drive. Four games into the season, Palmer seems ready. This week, we'll find out if the team surrounding him can keep up.

WIND SPRINTS

  • It's too early to chalk up Detroit Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers as a bust, but there are plenty of concerns about his long-term future with the team. After his first two years were a wash due to injuries, 2005 was expected to be the pivotal season in his development. Instead, Rogers has been a major disappointment, catching only five balls for 77 yards in three games. According to an NFL player close to Rogers, his attitude has taken a dive since the team drafted Mike Williams with the No. 10 pick.

"There is a chip on his shoulder about it," the player said. "In Charles' head, this was the summer: He's been out [with injury], people say he is a bust, and he lost the spot he wanted [as the No. 1 receiver] to Roy Williams. Then they get another guy in the first round. I think he kind of checked out at that point. He was mad. I don't know if Mike is there because they don't want to bet on Charles, but that's how it looks to Charles. Why else would you pay someone when you have two other receivers making [first-round] money? It's like drafting two quarterbacks high in two straight years – something ain't right."

Viewing Mike Williams as an insurance policy against Rogers doesn't seem like such a stretch anymore. Especially considering that Rogers had to fail three tests in the substance abuse program to get to this point. The first came at the combine when he submitted a diluted urine sample at the combine, suggesting a masking agent. The second never was publicly reported – but the Lions likely knew about it, giving the franchise extra motivation to grab Williams with its first-round pick.

Whatever the reasoning, Williams is going to be the beneficiary of Rogers' four-game suspension, getting bumped up the depth chart. This whole development may have just sped up what was coming anyway: Williams' reps with the first-team offense have been steadily increasing since the season began, and he has become a regular staple of the Lions' red-zone package.

  • Some franchises searching for the next hidden tailback might be inquiring about Chargers second-stringer Michael Turner, who apparently has impressed a handful of teams with the little playing time he's logged over the last two years. The 2004 fifth-round pick from Northern Illinois has carried the ball only 41 times for 173 yards while backing up LaDainian Tomlinson, but that hasn't stopped teams from keeping tabs – especially with him becoming a restricted free agent after the 2006 season.

"It could be a Rudi Johnson thing," said one AFC personnel man, referring to the Cincinnati star who sat behind Corey Dillon and then blossomed when he became a full-time starter in his fourth season. "[Turner] is more of a thick-and-quick guy. He has some Natrone Means qualities. His instincts are good, and he's a whole lot faster than he looks. I think if you saw him a little more, [you would] see that he's a starting quality player right now."

  • Chicago Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher has become one of the quality steals from the 2004 draft. A fourth-round pick from Texas, Vasher is following last season's five-interception effort with a strong start this year, intercepting three passes and defending five more in three games. Opponents are increasingly becoming wary of throwing in Vasher's direction, and he may end up being the team's top cover corner by the end of the season. Signed through 2007, Vasher will earn a modest average salary of $422,500 over the next two years. Don't be surprised if the Bears are talking contract extension when the 2006 season begins.
  • Now we know why the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't scramble to re-sign tackle Oliver Ross and guard Keydrick Vincent. When that pair signed with Arizona and Baltimore, respectively, there were rumbles from within the Steelers staff that last season's offensive line had been propped up by center Jeff Hartings and Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca. Through the first month of this season, both Ross, who is out for a month with a broken hand, and Vincent have suffered through mediocre starts.
  • Contrary to what his demotion suggests, Michael Bennett isn't finished with the Minnesota Vikings just yet. Coach Mike Tice still hasn't warmed to Mewelde Moore as a featured back, despite others in the organization who believe Moore is the best candidate to fill the role. A league source said Tice is hoping to give Bennett another shot at the starting job in the coming weeks.
  • The Washington Redskins are concerned by the slow start by wide receiver David Patten, whom the team thought would be the perfect possession complement to Santana Moss' speed. But Patten, who has seven catches for 46 yards, hasn't been productive in intermediate routes and hasn't gotten much separation from coverage. There are some who believe Patten was a major beneficiary of New England's spread sets and that may be one of the reasons for his struggles this season. In layman's terms? That's a nice way of saying his numbers were the product of the Patriots' system.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW

Don't blame Buffalo Bills coach Mike Mularkey if he suddenly changes his starting quarterback after steadfastly supporting J.P. Losman immediately following Sunday's loss to New Orleans. It never is and never will be fair for coaches to have to make a concrete endorsement of a player before seeing game film. If Mularkey saw something on the tape and changes his mind and yanks Losman, it doesn't make him wishy-washy. It makes him smart.