Monday, October 18, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Carson Palmer

"I can see that it won't be long / You grow cold when you keep holding on / You know you've changed and your words they lie / That's something you can't deny."

-David Bowie

A few weeks ago, I went home for the weekend. My dad and I were talking about our beloved (and struggling) Cincinnati Bengals, and most notably the play of Carson Palmer. The former #1 overall draft pick and two-time Pro Bowl quarterback was once the anointed one, chosen to lead us out of purgatory and remove the long-standing Curse of the Bengals. But now…I don’t know. Following the knee injury in 2005, Carson has been steadily rolling down hill. It took us Bengals fans a while to admit it, but it’s impossible to ignore. His numbers dropped in ’06 and ’07. He had the elbow injury in 2008 and a “game-manager” Division Championship season in 2009. And now, well…

When I was talking to my dad, I told him that I was going to give Carson three weeks. Three weeks to show what he had to offer. Three weeks to go against the Panthers, Browns, and Buccaneers, defenses that “2005-Palmer” would have chopped up like a chef at Benihana. Three weeks for Carson to prove who he was and what type of quarterback he was going to be.

The three weeks are up, and all I’ve learned is that our quarterback, and (subsequently) our football team, is just not very good.

Let’s start with Palmer – the sad and tragic story of Carson Palmer. It’s tough to find a place to begin. Anyone that remembers the Palmer of 2005 knows that this guy was the real deal. Over 67% completion rate, over 3,800 passing yards, over 30 touchdowns, and over a 101 QB rating. He earned a spot at the Pro Bowl and led the Bengals to their first Division Championship since Bush Sr. was in office. He was easily a Top 5 quarterback in the league. Aside from Manning and maybe Brady, there wasn’t anyone you would rather start a franchise around.

You probably remember what happened next. On the second-play of the playoff game, eternally-damned Kimo Von Oelhoffen rolled his fat-ass in to Carson’s knee, shattering our chances at winning the game (which we would have done) and altering the future direction of our franchise. From that moment forward, everything turned south. You can argue whether it took a more mental or physical toll on Palmer, but it’s obvious it had an impact. There was never a sudden or sharp decrease, yet Palmer’s play has been trending downward ever since.

It was tough for Cincinnati fans (and honestly, many people outside of the city) to admit that the current version of Palmer isn’t the same guy as “2005-Palmer”, which speaks a lot to the type of person that he is. Carson has always been well liked by fans around the city and by talking-head sports analysts around the country. He’s a nice guy. He never points the finger at anyone else. He’s quiet, works hard, and goes about his business. You’ll never hear about him calling out another teammate, getting a DUI at 4:30 in the morning, or texting pictures of his private parts to the team’s cute sideline reporter. He’s just an overall good dude, and a great example that a person’s character can cloud the perception of their overall performance.

For the past few years, there have been plenty of excuses made to account for Palmer’s sub-par play. He was coming off the knee injury. He had a new offensive line. Chad Ochocinco didn’t come to offseason programs. He had an elbow injury. He was coming back from the elbow injury. He had a new batch of receivers. His offensive line was inexperienced. His team was focusing more on the run game. You name the problem, and people had an excuse for it – teammates, coaches, opponents, analysts, fans…whoever. But maybe, just maybe, it was Palmer’s fault all along.

We make excuses for the people we care about. Ask anyone that’s ever had a stupid, incompetent but good-intentioned family member. It’s human nature. We defend the people we like, and vice versa. If Ben Roethlisberger comes back from his suspension and plays terrible, it will have nothing to do with his receivers or the offensive line or his coaches. It will be on him, because most people think Roethlisberger is a giant scumbag (which he is). People didn’t defend JaMarcus Russell. People didn’t defend Ryan Leaf. No one made excuses for those quarterbacks. That’s not a coincidence.

I am as guilty as anyone of being a Carson Palmer apologist, for all the same reasons that I just mentioned. In Cincinnati, Carson was the knight in shining armor, the leader, the messiah. We had a legitimate quarterback that stood up for our team, always took the blame when things went wrong, and never sexually assaulted a college student in a bathroom stall. Sure, he was easy to love when he was throwing 30 touchdown passes. But even when he was throwing 15-20 picks with a QB rating in the low 80s, we still talked up all the positives, and just tossed aside the other stuff. He was obviously talented, so his struggles couldn’t possibly be his responsibility. For years, we – you, I, the media, everyone – made ourselves believe this. And as hard as it is for me to admit, we were lying. We were wrong.

Carson Palmer is a mediocre quarterback, at best, right now. He has proven this to me over the past three weeks, and in all honesty, has been proving this to everyone over the past three seasons. If you want proof, you can look at his stats, but those don’t even tell the whole story. Just watch him play, and you’ll see a guy who doesn’t sense pressure well, nor does he respond to it well when he does sense it. He locks on to receivers, forces passes into coverage, takes bad sacks, and doesn’t know when to throw the ball away. And even worse, his physical skills still seem to be fine. He has the arm to make all the throws. It seems like it’s all in his head. And that’s an injury that is damn near impossible to get fixed.

Palmer has become that smoking hot girl you marry right out of college. She has it all. She’s gorgeous, smart, funny, comes from a good family, and has a limitless future. You would be an idiot not to wife-her-up. And for the first couple years, she’s everything you ever dreamed of. Then things start to change. She gets sick of her job, and her best friend moves away. She always seems down in the dumps, and isn’t nearly as much fun as she used to be. She has a couple kids, and her body never really goes back to the way it was. But what’s worse, she is so depressed and feels so unattractive, that she does nothing to fix it. She stops taking care of her body. She doesn’t even attempt to fix herself up anymore, and no matter how hard you try to cheer her up, nothing works. She’s a shell of what she used to be. She says she’s fine when you both know she’s not. She even makes you feel depressed. You try to reason that you know the girl she once was and that she’s just stuck in a rut, but you can’t get passed it. You try to ignore the (lack of) attraction aspect, but her disheartened attitude just makes it even more glaring. You want to stay together for the kids and to try and get back what you once had, but in reality, the relationship is ruining both of your lives. As sad as it sounds, the best thing for the both of you might be a divorce.

The Cincinnati Bengals are not a good football team this year. A lot of that is due to Carson Palmer. A lot of that is also due to other things wrong with this football team (which I won’t go in to at the current time). But I’ve accepted it. I’m not happy about it, but I’ve accepted it. I will still root for them just as hard, will still wear my Bengals gear, and will still refer to the team as “we”, same as I always have; that doesn’t change. But I am no longer operating under the idea that our team is going to have a successful season. I’ll hope for the best, but anything more than that is just a shovel for my own grave.

There is no use lying to myself. Our team, who steamrolled through the division last year on our way to an impressive record and deserved playoff berth, is not good. Our quarterback, who once had elite NFL status, who once had the league at his fingertips, the adoration of a city at his feet, and opposing defenses by the balls, is not good. It pains me to say it. It tears me up inside. But it’s the truth.

I’m no fan of country music, but there’s a Toby Keith song where he sings, “I ain’t as good as I once was / I got a few years on me now / But there was a time, back in my prime / When I could really lay it down.” That should be Carson Palmer’s theme music. There was a time when you could argue he was the best in the game. Alas, that time is no more.

It’s been a long and tragic fall. And as sad as it sounds – as tough as it is to admit – the best thing for both parties just might be a divorce.

Thanks for reading

Monday, October 11, 2010

Running Diary of NLDS Game 3 - Phillies vs Reds: The Day Cincinnati Sports Died

Welcome to Great American Ballpark in beautiful Cincinnati, Ohio. The Cincinnati Reds, down 2-0 in the NLDS to the Philadelphia Phillies and on the verge of elimination, are about to begin their first home playoff game since 1995. What had set up to be one of the most exciting days in the history of Cincinnati sports, with the Bengals playing at home earlier in the day, is beginning to look bleak. The Bengals completely choked away a late game lead to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few hours prior to the first pitch, which certainly hasn’t helped the mood for the evening’s big match-up. Nevertheless, the park is packed and ready to go. The city seems to realize how rare days like these are.

Brian Anderson and Joe Simpson have the call for us on TBS…

8:01 – Hall of Fame and Big Red Machine second baseman Joe Morgan throws out the first pitch, and the Cincy crowd is pumped. A lot of respect shown for Joe. Although in all fairness, I could have thrown out the first pitch and they would probably still go nuts. That’s what a 15 year playoff-drought will do to you.

8:07 – Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto’s first pitch is a ball, as the flashbulbs go wild. Impressive how juiced up this crowd is, like a new freshman girl during her first weekend at Ohio University.

8:09 – Polanco singles up the middle to start the game. Not a good start.

8:13 – Phillies’ first baseman Ryan Howard hits a bloop single to left. Runners on first and third with two outs.

8:17 – And the sports day from hell picks up right where the Bengals left off. Cabrera fields what seemed to be an inning-ending grounder, but the throw pulled Joey Votto off the bag at first. The error scored a run, giving Philly a 1-0 lead.

8:22 – Drew Stubbs comes to the plate first in the bottom of the inning and beats out an infield single.

8:23 – Victorino robs a Phillips liner in the gap, a sure extra base hit that would have tied the game. Great American would have exploded if that had found some grass.

8:35 – Did you guys know Conan O’Brien was getting a new show on TBS? They’ve been pretty quiet about it.

8:44 – Jay Bruce smacks a two-out single, but Cabrera follows up with a strikeout to end the second. Pitchers are looking good so far in this one.

8:54 – Cueto fans Chase Utley in the third, and the crowd loves it. Mainly because Utley is a greasy haired cheater with stupid facial hair.

9:06 – You know what makes me think of October playoff baseball? Yup, you guessed it TBS: Kid Rock. (“I was booooorrnnnnn freeeeeeeee!!!!”)

9:14 – Cueto finishes off the Phils in the top of the fourth. If it wasn’t for the blunder by Cabrera, this game would be knotted at zeros right now.

9:17 – I switched over to the Sunday Night Football game during the commercial (PHI @ SF) just in time to hear Cris Collinsworth say, “Patterson got Frank Gore through the back door there.” Yeah, I giggled.

9:22 – Scott Rolen just smacked a single up the middle for his first hit of the postseason. As one of the most experienced players on this young Reds team, we really needed him to have a good series. Hasn’t happened so far.

9:29 – Joe Simpson, talking about Cueto’s slider, said: “He might try to get it in the back door here.” Yeah, I giggled again. I’m such a child.

9:32 – Uh oh. Utley hits a solo homer to center field, 2-0 Phils. Some Cincy fan did his best Bartman impression, although I don’t think Stubbs could have gotten to it. Still, what kind of people come from this town?

9:41 – Reds send Miguel Cairo in to pinch hit for Cueto in the bottom of the fifth. Cueto’s stat line: 5 innings pitched, 5 hits allowed, 2 runs allowed, only 1 of them earned. Great game by Cueto tonight; he really showed up. Too bad the bats didn’t.

9:45 – Hey, I think Conan O’Brien has a new show starting on TBS.

9:53 – Rolen mishandles a grounder to third. I didn’t expect him to light the world on fire, but I would have never guessed he would struggle like this. The man had eight errors all season, and already has two in the series. And on that note, Brandon Phillips, who had three errors all year, had two in Game 2. And finally, a team with only 72 errors through 162 regular season games, has seven errors through their first three playoff outings.

10:04 – Likely NL MVP Joey Votto goes down swinging; Hamels goes 1-2-3 to end the sixth. He’s looking good tonight. The Reds are not. (Literally though, Hamels is a good looking guy. Don’t hate, just appreciate.)

10:25 – Jay Bruce hits a hard liner to right, but directly at Phillies’ outfielder Jason Werth. The Reds hit three balls right on the button this inning, and only had a Ramon Hernandez double to show for it. They can’t catch a break tonight. Still 2-0 Philadelphia.

10:48 – Flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman comes in to pitch the 9th for the Reds. Get your radar guns ready.

10:53 – 105? How can you hit something that small when it’s going 105 mph?

10:59 – And we head to the bottom of the 9th, the Phillies still holding a 2-0 lead. If the Reds have any tricks left in the bag, they better show them now. By the way, Conan is on TBS

11:02 – Phillips rips a single to left field to start the inning. Crowd is going ballistic. Have to give them an A+ for effort tonight. Votto is coming to the plate. If it was ever going to happen, I think it has to happen now.

11:05 – Votto grounds into a crowd-silencing double play. It doesn’t look like it’s in the cards for us this year.

11:08 – Rolen, our last hope, goes down swinging on a high fastball. The symbolism is astounding: we gave it our best shot, but couldn’t quite keep up with the big boys. Philly sweeps. It was fun while it lasted.

Rough series for the Redlegs. It was nice to be back among the league’s elite teams, and yet disappointing all the same. But before we break out the booze, let’s tip our caps to the Cincinnati Reds; Division Championships don’t come around like rainy days in April.

Somehow, I feel like the Bengals loss earlier in the day had an impact on this one. This city (as most seem to) lives and dies with its sports teams. Today, we died. There could be a lot of DUIs and suicides in the Queen City tonight.

But hey, at least we aren’t Cleveland.

Thanks for reading