Palmer happily takes back seat to receivers

GEORGETOWN, Ky. – When it comes to Batman and Robin, Carson Palmer(notes) is happy to be Alfred the Butler.

Or even Commissioner Gordon.

“I’m not one of those quarterbacks who can’t handle big egos in the locker room,” the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback said last week as he sat under the stands at tiny Georgetown College, soaking up the cool of some post-practice shade.

Palmer is more than willing to make room for the All-Diva receiving corps the Bengals have constructed with Terrell Owens(notes), Chad Ochocinco(notes) and, when he’s healthy, Antonio Bryant(notes). Palmer is happy mostly because the Bengals have the kind of weapons to make their passing game legit once again. By the end of last season, the Bengals’ passing game was neutered by injuries and inconsistent play from everyone except Ochocinco.

“The defense would roll three people to Chad’s side and we were done,” said Palmer, who led the Bengals to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. “It’s extremely frustrating. When we were throwing it for 400 yards a game and losing, that’s frustrating, too. But to lose and one of the big reasons we lost was our inability to move the ball down the field, that was very frustrating. I love throwing the ball over their heads. I love throwing the deep outs, the deep digs. We need to do that to be the balanced offense we talk about.”

At age 30, Palmer still possesses one of the classic big-play arms in the NFL and having three proven receivers plays to his strength. Not only does he have more options, especially when you factor in Cincinnati’s selection of tight end Jermaine Gresham(notes) with its first-round pick, but the attention on the wideouts further allows him to reside in the background.

To Palmer, the spotlight is a distraction. Whereas Owens and Ochocinco play to the camera as if they were Barbra Streisand in “Prince of Tides” and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”, Palmer is happy to sit off to the side waiting for his bit part.

Even if quarterbacks are supposed to be way more than secondary figures.

“That’s really the way Carson is,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “Go out, warm up, let’s play. That’s it.”

“I like going out in pregame and the attention is all on Chad. That’s fine,” Palmer said with a relaxed smile. “That’s perfectly fine with me because I can go warm up with nobody bothering me. If it’s all going to be focused on them, I can go about my business. They can do the star stuff. I prefer not to have that attention. To have two guys who can talk to NFL Films and do that, great.

“If that helps them get into the game and get prepared and get into game mode, fine. I don’t need that to get into game mode. That’s why I said, great, bring [Owens] here. Let’s get it done.”

True to his word, Palmer told Owens that very thing one day after Owens signed in late July. The two were headed into the locker room at one point when Palmer told Owens to go on without him.

Palmer and his newest target, Owens, discuss a route.
(Al Behrman/AP Photo)

“With Chad and myself, everybody is always going to flock to us,” said Owens, with his third team in three years. “Me and Carson, we were walking through the training room one day and I had to go out and he didn’t want to go out with me because he knew there was going to be a lot of attention.”

At practice one day, Owens and Ochocinco played up their superhero personas. Ochocinco beckoned a reporter to meet Owens on the sideline. The reporter had to cross a security line he wasn’t supposed to cross. When the reporter noted that he was breaking a minor rule, Owens said: “We’re Batman and Robin, we make the rules.”

All of that sounds good and entertaining right now. As the Bengals prepare for the season, nothing has gone wrong. They haven’t lost a regular season game or, worse, lost a contest in which Ochocinco or Owens has somehow ended up not getting the ball.

They haven’t lost in a situation where Owens, who spent last season with the Bills, can sit back and wonder if he can trust his quarterback. In each of the first three stops, Owens had issues with quarterbacks. From Jeff Garcia(notes) in San Francisco to Donovan McNabb(notes) in Philadelphia to Tony Romo(notes) in Dallas, the relationships ended in messy, tabloid stuff.

In his last season with the Cowboys in 2008, Owens believed that Romo and tight end Jason Witten(notes) were drawing up secret plays to get Witten the ball. That blew up after a particularly brutal loss at Pittsburgh. The situation got so bad that Romo and Owens barely spoke by the end of that season.

Palmer doesn’t envision a similar occurrence taking place with the Bengals. He has had eight years of professional therapy, er, training with Ochocino and former Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes). In fact, two team sources said Houshmandzadeh was the bigger diva by 2008, when he complained long and loud as he played his final season with the Bengals before becoming a free agent.

“Nothing can be as bad as T.J.,” one of the sources said. “He thought he was the star by then. He forgot how he had got here.”

If something goes awry – chances are, they will at some point – Palmer said he’s ready.

“There are things that go wrong. The game is about making the fewest mental mistakes. The teams that make the fewest mental mistakes usually win. But there are going to be times the receiver runs the wrong route or times when I throw the ball in the wrong place and the receiver is going to have to make a great play,” Palmer said.

Sure enough, at the end of practice last Thursday, Owens ran a fade pattern when he was supposed to run a post. Palmer’s pass was intercepted. It was one of Owens’ rare mistakes so far with the Bengals.

“It was maybe the first or second time he has done something like that,” said Palmer, who spent much of the practice working on non-verbal calls with Owens, who has quickly learned the playbook. “He’s been here [three] weeks and he has our offense down and our offense is really complex … we have rookies still lining up on the wrong side of the field, so that [Owens mistake] is nothing.

Palmer and Ochocinco have a lot of experience at smoothing things out.
(Al Behrman/AP Photo)

“The important part is that between he and I we keep an open line of communication because if you let one little thing about something they did bug you and you don’t talk about it, it goes into something else. Then, all of a sudden, a week later, something is going to happen and you’re arguing about what happened last week. So he and I just have great communication. If I do something wrong, we talk about it. If he does something wrong, we talk about it,” said Palmer, who likened the relationship to a marriage.

That’s a decidedly mature approach.

“It’s just the way I am. That’s why Chad and I have been able to work together going on eight years,” Palmer said. “We have our run-ins. We’ve been in tons of arguments and been pissed off at each other, frustrated with each other. But we always come back and talk about it. As soon as you don’t do that, that little thing is always in the back of your mind. If you say, ‘Screw it, I’m not going to say anything,’ that’s when things screw up.”

Some of those blowups have come with plenty of people watching. During the 2007 season opener against Baltimore on Monday Night Football, Palmer and Ochocinco argued over a route Ochocinco ran that ended up an interception.

“You can’t avoid it. There are cameras at every game, always people around. Nothing is ever kept under wraps anymore,” Palmer said. “Things that happen in the locker room with nobody around get out these days. The most important thing when Chad and I bump heads is that 30 minutes later, five minutes later, whatever it is, we talk about it. That’s my policy and if T.O. doesn’t want to buy into it, he doesn’t have to listen, but I’m going to talk.”

Hey, even the bit player gets his lines.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Aug 10, 2010