CINCINNATI -- It is one of the great “What Would Have Been” questions in Bengals history. Right up there with “What if Greg Cook stayed healthy?” and “What if Stanley Wilson didn’t go AWOL on the night before the Super Bowl?”
What if Carson Palmer never left the Bengals? Palmer and his current team, the Arizona Cardinals, are up next for the Bengals. They meet in a nationally televised game Sunday night.
“I’ve often wondered that,” said former Bengal and current radio analyst Dave Lapham. “It’s worked out well for both parties. He’s in a pretty good situation in Arizona. The Bengals are in a pretty good situation here with Andy Dalton.”
The Palmer question is really a two-parter:
1) What if he didn’t get hurt in the 2006 wild card playoff game?
2) What if he stayed?
Any black-and-orange-wearing, Who-Dey!-shouting fan will tell you that if Kimo von Oelhoffen doesn’t wreck Palmer’s knee on his first playoff pass, the Bengals beat the Steelers that day and make a deep run in the playoffs, maybe even win the Super Bowl.
It’s hard to argue with that logic — and if he hadn’t gotten hurt, he may have never effectively quit the team.
But he did. The divorce was ugly. After the Bengals went 4-12 in 2010, Palmer vowed to retire rather than play another season here. According to a WCPO report, a friend of Palmer quoted him as saying, "I will never set foot in Paul Brown Stadium again. I have $80 million in the bank."
Bengals owner Mike Brown held firm and refused to trade him.
“Carson signed a contract,” Brown said at the time. “He made a commitment. He gave his word. We relied on his word. We relied on his commitment. We expected him to perform here. He's going to walk away from his commitment. We aren't going to reward him for doing it.”
Palmer did not report to camp. The Bengals started the season 6-2 under rookie quarterback Dalton. Palmer finally got his wish and was traded on Oct. 11 to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick and a conditional pick.
It’s hard to say what would have happened if Palmer had stayed. But this is what did happen: The Bengals, 46-53 in Palmer's starts with two playoff losses in seven seasons, are 48-28-1 since he left and have made four straight playoff appearances (although they lost all four).
Peter King, the editor of MMQB.com and long-time NFL writer for Sports Illustrated, is currently working with Palmer on a two-part series on absorbing the game plan.
King thinks Palmer was not bluffing in his threat to retire.
“I remember when Palmer left and said he wasn’t playing there anymore,” King said. “Everyone said: He’ll play. At some point if they don’t trade him, he’ll play. I sort of reached this conclusion because I was like everyone else at the time ... Now I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. He’s such a principled guy. I think he might have never played again. I think he would have dropped off the face of the earth.”
Palmer was clearly the kind of quarterback Brown loved. He’s a classic drop-back passer. He was picked first overall in the 2003 draft. He lived up to his scouting report immediately.
“His arm talent, it was as good as I’ve even seen,” Lapham said. “When the ball came out of his hand, it was different. He had remarkable down-field accuracy before he got hurt. And it’s back now. He had a stretch there when it was tougher for him after he lost his base. He was unbelievable in terms of how he could throw the ball down the field.”
Lapham says Brown would have loved to keep Palmer.
“Mike was crushed when he lost him,” Lapham said. “Carson was one of Mike’s favorite players. He had such a high regard for quarterbacks and quarterbacks’ abilities. Carson had rare arm talent. Carson was the kind of person Mike likes. He’s a good guy. It was painful when he lost him.”
But King thinks for Palmer to have thrived in Cincinnati, it would have taken the right offensive coordinator. The Bengals brought in Jay Gruden before the 2011 season.
“Carson is an obedient guy. He’s not going to go on strike. But Carson is going to be a lot happier and a lot better if he respects the coach and the coaches,” King said. “I think he really liked Marvin (Lewis) and respected Marvin. But I think at the end of the day, he just thought he was never going to have a consistent chance to win. Now, as it’s turned out, especially with Hue Jackson, who’s a smart, bold play-caller, a bolder play-caller than Jay Gruden was, I think Carson - if he had a Hue Jackson over time - it could have worked. And I think the Bengals would have been really good.”
Palmer has been really good in Arizona, King says, because his head coach, Bruce Arians, has put together an offense that suits Palmer’s style.
“I mean, Carson Palmer airs it out,” King said. “If you’re going to have more of a ball-control offense, play-it-safe, West Coast-type, I have a lot of questions about whether that is going to work with him long-term.”
Brown has always been a quarterback-centric owner.
“Mike is always going to take a chance on a quarterback,” King said. “If he doesn’t have a quarterback, he’s always going to draft one. Mike believes there’s no way you have a prayer if you don’t have one. That’s his philosophy. I don’t think it’s a bad one.”
My personal theory is that when Palmer left and Dalton arrived, Brown realized he was going to have to put a better team around Dalton. Dalton was the 35th pick in the draft. At 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, he’s smaller than the prototypical drop-back passer.
In other words, he’s not Palmer.
But the team turned around and Dalton has steadily gotten better. It didn’t hurt that the draft picks the Bengals got from Oakland turned out to be Dre Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard. The Bengals put together four great drafts from 2011 to ’14, drafting 12 current starters.
As a result, Dalton has won more consistently than Palmer did here.
“If you look at quarterbacks who have great teams, they all have great people around them,” Lapham said. “You look at Boomer (Esiason’s) year. He had a great team around him. There was no weakness on the offense. In ’81 when Kenny (Anderson) won MVP, we had great talent around him. The quarterback can’t do it himself.
“Now that they’ve put together a good team around Andy, he can perform at a high level. I think he was very wise to take the deal that he took. He left money that they could extend A.J. Green, they could extend (Andrew Whitworth). I think he understands that you’re only as good as the people around you.
“Tom Brady might be able to elevate the talent around him. Peyton Manning did it for years. But that’s a rare hombre.”
If Palmer had stayed and had the team Dalton has, what would have happened? No one knows for sure. But it will be argued in bars as long as people shout “Who Dey!”