First Posted: 10/22/2008 2:40:06 PM | Last Updated: 10/22/2008 2:40:06 PM
On a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon, a perfect fall day for football at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer stood stoic on the sideline as his team bungled and stumbled to a seventh consecutive defeat.
Palmer, the first overall pick out of USC in 2003, must be wondering where it all went wrong.
Things first began to crumble on Jan. 8, 2006, when, on the second offensive play in the playoff opener, Palmer suffered two torn knee ligaments on a hit from Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen.
Super Bowl dreams died hard that day. Since then, the Bengals have gone 15-24 and have not returned to the playoffs.
Palmer has spent the past few seasons commenting on Chad Johnson’s misguided ramblings and defending the missteps of teammates, all while trying to earn the Bengals their first playoff victory since 1990.
Palmer has attempted to assume a leadership role on the club, be it ripping “Ocho Cinco” off the back of Johnson’s jersey or talking tough in regard to off-field indiscretions by a few of his teammates.
In large part, Palmer has led by example. He’s a consummate professional, a good guy in the community. Give him a formidable offensive line and dependable running game, and Palmer’s a perennial Pro Bowler.
This season, it has all gone horribly wrong.
Palmer has missed three games with an inflamed elbow. He is likely to miss more.
Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick has been thrust into the lions’ den in relief, but he’s had no chance.
“Every week (in the NFL) guys get injured, and other guys step in,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. “This is not what professional football is all about. I’m angry.”
By now, he should be.
Palmer’s injury could take several months to heal and possibly could require surgery. If he chooses to play through the injury, he could jeopardize his availability for training camp.
The proverbial window of success in the NFL’s parity-driven system is rapidly closing for Palmer and the Bengals. Another grueling stretch of playoff absences appears likely.
Once thought to be the savior of the franchise, Palmer has become mostly a witness to its latest demise.
On Sunday, the Steelers blew open a close game in the fourth quarter en route to a 38-10 win.
How bad was it?
Starting linebacker Keith Rivers was lost indefinitely after suffering a broken jaw on a crushing block by wide receiver Hines Ward.
Kyle Larson had punts of 15 and 36 yards in the first half.
The crowd roared when the Bengals recorded their first first down with 4:55 remaining in the second quarter.
Fitzpatrick, who was sacked seven times, rallied the Bengals to a late touchdown to make the halftime score 10-7.
But, a 50-yard TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Nate Washington started the unraveling in the fourth quarter.
Oh and seven.
“For whatever reason, we just seemed to dissolve,” said Lewis. “We had momentum going. We let a negative play creep in and we get off track. It can’t happen.”
Palmer wants to play. He believes he can fix this mess.
It’s admirable. But, impossible.
The problems inherent in this franchise are too great for one player, or a coach for that matter, to resolve.
For all intents and purposes, this season is over.
“We’ve been in a position to win games,” said right tackle Stacey Andrews. “We have to learn how to finish. It’s about getting that one win. We have to keep our swagger.”
The Bengals’ swagger is vanishing as fast as season ticket packages.
Palmer has an insatiable desire to play, to take every available rep in practice, do anything possible to single-handedly patch the holes in the Bengals’ sinking ship.
Palmer cannot do it all. This season, he’s done enough.
Let the elbow heal. Sit down, and start over.
Jeff Wallner is a frequent contributor to Pulse, the Cincinnati Enquirer, MLB.com, Associated Press and Sports XChange. E-mail him at Wallner@CinciPulse.com.