Back in his early days as the Cincinnati Bengals' franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer used to daydream away his offseasons by staring at a pocket schedule and envisioning how each of the 16 impending matchups would play out.
If he has been harboring any hopeful fantasies about his return to Paul Brown Stadium Sunday as a member of the Oakland Raiders, Palmer isn't delusional enough to believe he'll receive a warm welcome.
"I have a pretty good feeling how that's going to go," Palmer told reporters earlier this week. "We'll wait and see Sunday at 1."
Palmer was smiling as he spoke. The veteran quarterback knows what's coming: A hearty chorus of boos from a fan base stung by his refusal to remain a part of the Bengals' organization following the 2010 season.
I can understand why Cincinnati fans would feel like venting their bitterness toward Palmer, but their enmity is misguided. If anything, they should be welcoming him back to the Queen City with a warm ovation, for his departure last October fortified the franchise while giving the quarterback very little satisfaction.
As T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Palmer's former teammate with the Bengals and Raiders, said Wednesday, "I hope they don't boo him, because they have no reason to. They hit the lottery. It worked out great for the Bengals. They got A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. They've got a chance to go to the playoffs every year. And they got those high draft picks. So, what are you mad at?"
Houshmandzadeh is right: While the story's final chapters have yet to be written, at this point it sure looks like the Bengals have won and Palmer has lost.
With two consecutive victories and no team with a winning record on its schedule until two days before Christmas, Cincinnati (5-5) has a legitimate shot at making a second consecutive playoff appearance. The previous one came on the day last January that Palmer's postseason push with his new team fell short.
Dalton, Palmer's successor since being selected by the Bengals in the second round of the 2011 draft, has shown loads of promise. Given that Green, the team's 2011 first-round pick, is already one of the league's top receivers, the Bengals' passing game may have a killer combination for the next decade. And thanks to last October's celebrated trade with the Raiders, Cincinnati's roster includes rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (the 2012 draft's 17th overall selection), and the Bengals own Oakland's second-round pick next April.
The Raiders (3-7), meanwhile, are a full-fledged disaster, with owner Mark Davis openly complaining about "regression." Though Palmer is playing well, his team is direction-less and overmatched, and a case could be made that he left one flawed franchise for the only NFL organization that is even more dysfunctional.
Throw in the fact that ex-Raiders coach Hue Jackson, who spearheaded the trade for Palmer, is now a member of Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' staff, and it's clear that if anyone's getting the last laugh, he's not wearing silver and black.
Any minute now, some Raider Nation conspiracy theorist will assert that all of this was part of a plot by Bengals owner Mike Brown, Palmer and Jackson to sabotage the NFL's outlaw franchise. If so, I won't endorse that fit of Raider paranoia — but I'll understand.
Palmer told reporters he has "no regrets" about his departure from Cincinnati, and that's commendable given the current state of affairs. Jackson, who'd coached the Bengals' receivers during some of Palmer's best years (2004-06), had an innovative offense with which the quarterback was familiar. However, when Oakland fired Jackson following the 2011 season, it meant Palmer would be forced to learn a new system.
In this case, new coach Dennis Allen brought in offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, whose playbook is heavy on quarterback movement. That seemed to be a bad fit for Palmer, who is very much a pocket passer. To his credit, he has put up good numbers, with five 300-yard passing games and 17 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. His 3,035 passing yards rank third in the NFL behind the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees.
Then again, Palmer has had to be prolific, because Oakland's once-formidable running game has evaporated under Allen and Knapp, who favors a zone blocking scheme. That does not play to the strength of explosive halfback Darren McFadden, who has just 455 rushing yards and is averaging an anemic 3.3 yards per carry. The Raiders, without the injured McFadden the past two weeks, have the league's 31st-ranked rushing attack.
"It's like the Carson Palmer Show, with a little [fullback/halfback] Marcel Reece sprinkled in," said Houshmandzadeh, who spent the second half of last season with the Raiders but is not currently with an NFL team. "The receivers have no [veteran] to learn from, and the backs have nowhere to run. That offense was so good when Hue was there, and it still would have been. I guarantee Mark Davis is kicking himself in the ass for [getting rid of Jackson]."
Palmer's go-with-the-flow attitude has been buoyed by a faith that his current organization is fully committed to winning and that first-year Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie will rebuild the roster and facilitate a promising future. That said, the draft picks surrendered via the prior acquisitions of quarterbacks Palmer, Jason Campbell and Terrelle Pryor made McKenzie's task a bit tougher.
While Bengals fans believe Palmer "quit" on the organization, he has refrained from making any negative public comments about his former employer and seems to harbor no bitterness. In Houshmandzadeh's eyes, the quarterback had his reasons for wanting out.
"I don't know what Carson was promised, in terms of them keeping certain players or going after other players to get better, but I think he came to the conclusion that they weren't holding up their end," Houshmandzadeh said. "I think his attitude was, 'They're not giving it their all like I'm giving it my all.' The organization probably felt, 'We're giving it our all —under our parameters.'
"But to say that he 'quit'? No — it's like any job. If you don't like what's going on and you can't stand it, you leave. In football, it's a little more complicated."
Still, Houshmandzadeh wonders what might have happened had Palmer stuck it out —especially with Green in the fold.
"Andy Dalton's good," Houshmandzadeh said, "but if you put Carson with that offense right now, they'd probably have two more wins. Carson playing with A.J. Green? Just think about that. A.J. Green is the best receiver in the NFL. Carson wouldn't admit it, but he's gotta be looking at that and going, 'Aaaaaaaah!' "
Palmer, fed up with Brown's leadership and unfulfilled after eight mostly futile seasons, cut off diplomatic relations with the organization following the 2010 campaign and made it known he'd retire rather than return.
Brown, determined not to be strong-armed, refused to accede to Palmer's trade request, and the strong-armed quarterback went home to California and prepared for what he thought would be a season (or more) of inactivity.
Then a strange confluence of circumstances led to the unlikely trade that made him a Raider: Iconic owner Al Davis (Mark's father) passed away in early October, leaving a front-office power vacuum; Campbell, the Raiders' quarterback, suffered a broken clavicle one week later in a victory over the Cleveland Browns; and Jackson, who had a relationship with Brown from his earlier stint with the Bengals, convinced the Cincinnati owner to swing the deal the night before the trading deadline.
The next morning, Palmer received a 4:30 a.m. text from his agent, Dave Dunn, and got on a plane to Oakland without having packed underwear or numerous other necessities. He sat in a middle seat on a Southwest Airlines flight and, before takeoff, had a phone conversation with Dunn in which the quarterback used code words to discuss the situation without alerting other passengers.
Palmer's "physical" was so rushed that it consisted of three passes and a quick once-over from doctors before the deal was officially consummated. He literally had to "borrow" grey T-shirts from the Raiders' training facility to get him through the week, and five days later he was playing quarterback for a playoff contender in front of a fired-up Coliseum crowd.
He was happy then, and he claims to be happy now. If you're a Bengals fan, you should be happy for Palmer, too. Regardless of what happens in Sunday's game, the de facto scoreboard indicates that the Bengals came out winners in this divorce.
"I hope they don't boo him," Houshmandzadeh said. "I know I'll be watching. I'm like Carson — I'll hope for the best and expect the worst. But really, they should be thanking him."
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