The future of the Cincinnati Bengals rests on the arm of Andy Dalton(notes), the second-round pick out of TCU. Cincinnati loved Dalton throughout the draft process, believed he had the makings of a great one and prayed he'd make it back to them at pick No. 35. He did.
Ideally, Dalton would spend this year learning the ropes from Carson Palmer(notes), who despite the Bengals' sorry 4-12 record last season still has plenty of game remaining in him. Maybe not 2005 game, but enough game to be a factor in the NFL.
Palmer, however, refuses to play for the Bengals. Whether his reasons are real or if he's just being a diva hardly matters. He's sitting back in California and there is no indication anywhere that this is a bluff. He claims he's retired. He's only 31.
And here is where Bengals owner Mike Brown's unfortunate vision for the franchise comes into play. He isn't looking forward, as in: How do I position my team, and my young quarterback for this and other seasons to come?
No, Mike Brown is looking backward, looking at the 2005 contract extension that Palmer signed to keep him in Cincinnati through the 2014 season. Brown calls that a "commitment." And since Palmer isn't living up to his part, Brown isn't going to let him out by trading him for the players and/or draft picks that can help the Bengals and Andy Dalton.
Instead, Mike Brown will let his stubbornness handcuff the franchise. Again.
"Carson signed a contract, he made a commitment," Brown said on Tuesday. "He gave us his word. We relied on his word and his commitment. We expected him to perform here. If he is going to walk away from his commitment we aren't going to reward him for doing it."
Let's get the most obvious bit of foolishness out of the way here. Commitment? What is this, couples' therapy? There are no commitments in the NFL. Players get cut. Coaches get fired. Heck, the entire collective bargaining agreement was just reworked when Brown and his fellow owners locked the entire league out. Yes, they had the legal right, just as marriages have the legal right to end in divorce but it doesn't say much for commitment.
Mike Brown sees this as some battle of ancient principle when he should see it as the ultra-competitive business of football. In 2008, the Washington Redskins offered two first-round picks for Chad Ochocinco(notes). Brown turned it down. We're guessing coach Marvin Lewis would've taken the two picks.
Palmer has value and Tuesday's quarterback free-for-all is proof of it. The Seattle Seahawks just made deals to bring in Tarvaris Jackson(notes) and Matt Leinart(notes) to hopefully get them back to the playoffs. Tavaris Jackson and Matt Leinart?
The Philadelphia Eagles are weighing offers on backup Kevin Kolb(notes), knowing they'll get plenty in return. Matt Hasselbeck(notes) is in demand. Kyle Orton(notes) may fetch a deal for Denver. Minnesota is trying to trade for Donovan McNabb(notes). Vince Young(notes) is even an option.
Palmer is better than those guys, a heck of a lot better than most of them. He threw for nearly 4,000 yards last season, 26 touchdowns against 20 interceptions on a hopeless team. He's not old and you never know what he still has in him, perhaps even a return to the middle of the last decade when he was one of the game's best.
The Bengals should assess the situation and realize Palmer is gone. Maybe he's being a jerk. Maybe he's being disloyal. Whatever. It happens. There's value there and the Bengals need value.
They are about to trot out a rookie quarterback and if there was a way to get him a little more help – offensively or defensively – with whatever Palmer might fetch in live bodies or strong draft picks, not to mention the breathing room of dumping his $11.5 million contract, then that's the Bengals' best hope.
Instead, Bengal fans get talk about commitment and the promise of extreme stubbornness that might explain why Cincinnati so often struggles to get out of its own way.
"I honestly like Carson Palmer," Brown said. "He was a splendid player for us. He is a good person. I wish him well and he has retired. That is his choice."
Palmer isn't really retired. He'll play again and everyone in the NFL knows it. Maybe it won't be until 2012 when Brown, having proven his point, will finally relent and trade his rights.
Why do it in 2012, however, when Palmer is a year older, saddled with rust and, thus, a less-valuable trade property? Why do it when time allows teams to weigh different options rather than the current seller's market of post-lockout desperation? Why do it when Palmer may not be the best available signal caller and thus diminish the best return package?
By not rewarding Palmer with his freedom, Brown thinks he's punishing him.
He should stop worrying about hurting his last quarterback and start thinking about helping his next.