Carson Palmer was born December 27, 1979, in Laguna Niguel, California. His parents, Danna and Bill, welcomed a second son, Jordan, three years later. The earliest memories most people have of Carson involve the speed, distance and accuracy with which he threw things—anything. He seemed destined for athletic stardom from the start. Carson was big and fast and smart, but more intriguing was the evenness of his temperament, and his ability to learn from his mistakes instead of pouting about them.
Orange County youth football is something to behold. While smash-mouth may be the style elsewhere in the country, in Southern California’s year-round leagues and elite camps it’s all about kids throwing the football. Carson stood out even among the most talented young passers. His spirals were things of beauty. His accuracy was already filtering up to college recruiters, even though he was several years short of high school.
In seventh grade,
the Palmers hired Bob Johnson to be their son’s personal quarterback
coach. His own son, Rob, was finishing his career as USC starting quarterback,
and would go on to help the Tampa Bay Bucs to a Super Bowl victory. Johnson’s
other son, Bret, became a star in the Canadian Football League. He tutored
Carson on the finer points of quarterbacking, and would maintain his mentoring
relationship with the boy throughout college.
In 1994, Carson enrolled at Rancho Santa Margarita High School in Mission Viejo. He started for the freshman team, and was so good that the varsity players would halt their practices to watch him play. Carson worked his way into the varsity quarterback slot by his sophomore year for coach Jim Hartigan.
He also became a star of the hoops team. Basketball, in fact, became Carson's great love as a teenager. Although he eventually became a full-time football player, two things remain from his basketball days—his sublime footwork and his closest friends—both of which he developed on the hardwood of RSM.
By 1996, Carson was close to his full height of 6-5, and he already had a major-league arm. His quick feet made the scouts drool, as did his poise in the pocket. Carson passed for 2,100 yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior, and led RSM to the California state title. He was rated #6 high school quarterback by SuperPrep prior to his senior year.
Among the schools recruiting Carson heavily was Colorado, which had been communicating with him since his freshman season. When teammate and longtime friend John Minardi committed to the Buffaloes, most assumed Carson would follow. He was leaning that way, particularly because he liked Rick Neuheisel’s track record with quarterbacks. Carson’s other two final choices came down to Notre Dame and USC.
When Paul Hackett took over the Trojans in 1997, Carson had a change of heart. He, too, had a good rep when it came to the passing game. Carson knew that one of his idols, Joe Montana, had played with the Kansas City Chiefs because Hackett was there. You don’t get references much better than that.
Carson could throw hard and accurately. Many high school hunks can do both, but not at the same time. This ability put him in the class of kids who were likely to start in big-time programs as freshmen. So too did a second state championship, as Carson led RSM to the promised land once again in 1997. He threw for 2,685 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior, despite missing two early-season games to injury.
Later in the year, Carson led RSM to a 32-2 record and the state basketball championship—an accomplishment he still lists as his biggest sports thrill.
At Southern Cal, Carson eased into a share of the quarterback job with Mike Van Raaphorst. It marked just the second time in school history that a true freshman started for the Trojans. Hackett had little doubt his freshman could handle the team’s West Coast offense, but was worried about his ability to read signals from the sideline. Carson got his first start against Washington in early November. And sure enough, he blew a play. Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Brien made a motion Carson misread as a deep post pattern for wideout Billy Miller. He hit Miller for a 57-yard touchdown. O’Brien said “Nice call” when Carson trotted off the field, then told him the actual play he had wanted. The Trojans won 33-10, and Carson completed 18 of 31 passes for 279 yards. From that point on, Carson wore a wristband with the plays written out. He ended up starting the final five games for the Trojans, leading the team to an 8-5 record, including a trip to the Sun Bowl.
After his freshman year, Carson was anointed the next great thing in college football. As the 1999 season approached, he was being picked by many to win the Heisman Trophy and go pro in time for the following spring's draft, where it was predicted he would be the #1 pick. The press, opposing coaches, even his own teammates were hyping him beyond all reason. Three games into the '99 capaign, however, disaster struck. Carson fractured his collarbone and was red-shirted the rest of the way.
The 2000 season started well enough, with victories over Penn State, San Jose State and Colorado. Then the campaign turned sour. Against Oregon State, Carson threw three picks in a dispiriting loss. With the exception of a stellar performance against UCLA, interceptions plagued Carson the rest of the season. He was always trying to make a big play, and paid the price game after game.
Carson had gone from
can’t-miss to can’t-pass, and he was sick of trying to analyze
why. After USC’s frustrating 6-6 season, his record as a starter
stood at 10-10 and he had more interceptions than touchdowns. Carson told
reporters that he would run the option or hand off 65 times a game if
that’s what it took to win.
Things finally began to click for Carson in 2001, when new coach Pete Carroll and his offensive coordinator Norm Chow discarded the complex West Coast scheme in favor of a basic, quick-strike attack. Chow was the man behind BYU’s fabled passing attack, having tutored the likes of Steve Young, Ty Detmer and Jim McMahon, as well as Philip Rivers at NC State. The system Chow installed often called for Carson to throw to empty spots on the field and trust that his receivers would be there when the ball arrived—similar to many pro offenses.
After some early jitters, Carson relaxed, and let the offense develop over the course of games. His final numbers reflected his growing proficiency and confidence. His passer rating was up, his interceptions were down, and the Trojans rolled down the stretch, when they picked up five of their six wins.
Carson considered going pro after his junior season. Although his stats were lackluster, no one doubted that he would make a decent NFL quarterback. Besides, he was tired of getting blamed for everything that went wrong at USC. Only a heart-to-heart with Chow convinced him of the value of staying for his senior year.
Early in the 2002 season, USC was playing Kansas State and mounting a comeback from a 27-20 deficit when Carson threw what appeared to be a horrible, drive-killing incompletion to an empty patch of turf. After the loss, he told reporters that the pass was his fault and accepted responsibility for the loss. The intended receiver, Keary Colbert, listened to his quarterback until he couldn’t stand it any more. He stepped up and revealed that he should have been exactly where Carson had thrown the football—Colbert insisted he had misread the defense and cost his team a chance to win.
It was a remarkable moment for the Trojans, who truly pulled together after the K-State game. They entered the year with the nation’s toughest schedule, yet finished with a 10-2 record. Carson put up monster numbers, including 3,639 passing yards and a 33 touchdowns, which tied a Pac-10 record. He grew stronger as the campaign wore on, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in the second half. During one three-game stretch (with two of the games on the road), Carson piled up 13 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards.
test came in a December game against Notre Dame’s vaunted pass defense.
Everything clicked against the Fighting Irish, and he methodically dismantled
the nation’s #2 unit with 425 passing yards and four TDs in a 44-13
blowout. It was his final game at the Coliseum, and he left the field
knowing that he had survived countless ups and downs to fulfill the promise
he had shown when he arrived at USC.
After this incredible performance, the attention of the college football world turned to the Heisman Trophy. Carson’s second-half surge made him an obvious choice, but because he snuck up on the voters, did they realize just how good he wa? His own school wasn’t even convinced. Not only did USC fail to mount the traditional Heisman campaign for Carson, the Trojans did not even think to put him on the front of their media guide.
In the end, Carson beat out Ken Dorsey of Miami and Brad Banks of Iowa. Ironically, the Trojans were slated to play the Hawkeyes in the Orange Bowl in Carson’s final college game. The voting marked the first time all the finalists received at least 100 first-place votes, but Carson finished first by more than 200 points. In Miami against Iowa, he passed for more than 300 yards and was named the game’s MVP in a 38-17 upset of the third-ranked Hawkeyes.
As draft day neared, it became increasingly obvious that the Bengals would grab Carson with the first pick. When they did, he joined an elite group of Pac-10 passers who went first overall—John Elway, Troy Aikman and Drew Bledsoe. In July, Carson and his fiancee, Shaelyn Fernandes, got married in a ceremony at Pebble Beach.
Carson sat, watched, and learned his rookie year, as veteran Jon Kitna guided a young Cincy team from a dismal 2-14 mark to a surprising 8-8 season. The veteran took every snap and was the NFL’s comeback player of the year. But in February of 2004, long before training camp, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis made Carson the starter. Kitna graciously accepted the role as a wisdom-dispensing back up, neatly avoiding a quarterback controversy that might have divided the team. Bengals fans had seen their share of these conflagrations over the years, and were grateful for Kitna's class.
MAKING HIS MARK
All spring and summer,
Carson devoured film of enemy defenses with coaches Bob Bratkowski and
Ken Zampese. By the time the '04 season began, he had developed a keen
eye for indicators across the line.
team Carson inherited starred Chad Johnson, who nicknamed himself 7-Eleven,
because he was always open. Corey Dillon, a big part of the team’s
2003 success, was traded to the New England Patriots, opening the featured
back job up to Rudi Johnson. The offensive line was anchored by Pro Bowl
tackle Willie Anderson.
Midway through the '04 season, everything started to click for Carson. An offense that had been competent under Kitna was beginning to flourish as Carson’s teammates began to understand some of the things he could do. When he encountered situations that might have spooked another quarterback, there was Kitna on the sidelines, instantly breaking things down for his protege so he could go back out and turn lemons into lemonade. And when a sprained knee sidelined Carson for the final three games, Kitna stepped in and got the Bengals tantalizingly close to a playoff berth.
By season’s end, the game had slowed down and Carson was seeing things on the other side of the ball—blitzes, complex coverages, the works. His talent bubbled to the top, and despite another .500 season, only a blind man could miss the fact that the Bengals were becoming one of the best teams in the league. Carson’s ’04 stats were solid as well, 263 completions in 432 attempts, with 18 TDs and 18 INTs.
As the Bengals began
their 2005 campaign, it was clear that Carson had evolved considerably.
Whereas Zampese had to hold his hand and walk him through the basics for
much of '04, Carson was now able to complete his coach’s sentences
and was even thinking ahead of his coach at times.
Cincy started the year with four straight wins, and the league began to take notice. Carson picked apart the Cleveland Brownsw and Minnesota Vikings, but then followed these games up with a masterful performance against the stingy Chicago Bears. Carson’s leadership abilities began to emerge during this time. A key moment was his chewing out of Johnson for a moment of flamboyance after a bad play. The wideout with an answer for everyone and everything stood agape and silent as he incurred Carson’s wrath. Their fellow Bengals still look back on the tirade as a turning point—and can’t help laughing their butts off.
Cincinnati came back to earth against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers, but Carson learned from those losses, and sharpened his focus on execution. He also began to look at his fellow Bengals with new eyes. Indeed, one of the main differences between his first and second seasons as an NFL starter was the confidence he showed in his teammates. In 2004, he had looked for Johnson almost every time he dropped back to pass. In '05, he spread the ball around. In doing so, Carson not only united the offense, he turned it into a far more dangerous and difficult unit to defend. He also launched T.J. Houshmandazeh into stardom, to the horror of sports editors around the country.
Carson exhibited his growing maturity in other ways. After a sack or interception, he was able to immediately put the play behind him and start thinking about the next series. He didn't pout, and showed almost no sign of anger or frustration when things didn’t break his way. Soon, the entire team was taking his cue and the Bengals were transformed into a pack of very cool customers.
Cincy's record stood
at 7-3 after 10 games. They won their next four to clinch the division
title in mid-December with a victory over theDetroit Lions. The streak
also guaranteed the team its first winning season in 14 years.
Carson, the Bengals have their first legitimate franchise quarterback since
Boomer Esiason. He has performed in the fishbowl of a Heisman Trophy race,
and heard 100,000 fans boo him, so it is unlikely he will fall prey to the
highs and lows of the NFL. A notch below Manning and Brady when the 2005
season ended, Carson may soon make each of these guys a notch in his postseason
Carson has all the physical tools NFL teams look for in a quarterback. Strong, tall, and mobile, he combines a powerful arm with unflinching accuracy, even under heavy pressure. Carson’s mechanics are as good as those of any quarterback in the league.
Carson may not make many spectacular plays, but it's because he doesn't put himself in spots where he has to. At the end of a game, his stats look good but they are hardly Hall of Fame numbers. When you think back to the decisive drives, however, you realize he made smart decisions and clutch throws to keep the offense moving. He has learned to spot what defenses are giving him—and exploit those opportunities until he forces opponents to change their strategy.
Carson is a "one-of-the-guys" leader. He lets his teammates know that if they do their jobs and he does his, the Bengals will win. He does not panic when injuries or penalties hamper Cincinnati’s progress, and he knows when to take control of the huddle and rally his players.
His 2005 season was
a work of art in this respect. Though overshadowed by passers like Peyton
Manning, Carson quietly put together an MVP performance in the truest
sense of the word.
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