Carson Palmer had an entire year to prepare for this moment, so when he finally stepped onto the field as the starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 12, there were very few surprises.
That was the plan for Palmer, the top overall pick in the 2003 draft. Palmer, the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Southern California, didn't take a single snap during his rookie season; instead he watched as veteran Jon Kitna directed the Bengals.
"That was one of the things that I wanted to get accomplished last year, from sitting on the sidelines: When it was my time to play, I wouldn't be surprised by stuff, I'd be prepared," said Palmer, who will make his third start when the Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. "I'd be prepared for two-minute situations, prepared for being up by 14 points, prepared for being down by 14 points, and things that you need to do. That was one of my goals going into this year, just to be ready for any situation that was thrown at me."
Palmer completed 18 of 27 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns in his NFL debut, a 31-24 loss at the New York Jets. He threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson to bring Cincinnati within seven points in the fourth quarter, but he also killed the Bengals' final chance at a comeback by throwing an interception.
Last week, Palmer struggled in the first half of a 16-13 win over the Miami Dolphins, completing just 9 of 18 passes for 59 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked three times. But when the game was on the line, Palmer came through. He drove the Bengals 59 yards on 10 plays to set up Shayne Graham's game-winning field goal with two seconds left. Palmer completed 7 of 8 passes for 53 yards on the final drive and finished with 147 yards on 21-of- 38 passing.
"He stayed poised through the game," Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis told reporters in a Monday news conference. "Especially when the game came down to crunch time and we needed yardage to stay alive."
"He's got a good grasp of what they're doing," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said. "He seems to be very comfortable back there. You don't see the anxiousness that you'd expect from a guy that's only going into his third start."
Palmer signed a seven-year, $49 million contract -- and then promptly sat on the bench. Palmer recalled one of his first conversations with Lewis, in which the coach made it perfectly clear that Palmer was going to spend his first season watching and learning as Kitna's backup.
So Palmer did just that as Kitna took every snap (the only quarterback in the NFL to do so) and put together a career year. Kitna completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 3,591 yards and threw 11 more touchdowns (26) than interceptions (15). The Bengals went 8-8 -- a year after finishing 2-14 -- and Kitna was named the league's comeback player of the year.
"I had the chance to sit back and learn from Jon and watch him handle the team and handle games, so I think it was good for me," Palmer said.
Kitna was always teaching Palmer, whether it was on the field or in the classroom. During games, the seven-year veteran would stand with Palmer on the sideline and point out what the opposing quarterback was doing right and wrong.
That hasn't changed this year, even though their roles have. Lewis named Palmer the starter in early March, well before any minicamps, and by all accounts Kitna handled the news gracefully.
"He's been amazing," Palmer said. "To have him here, I'm glad they signed him back. Hopefully he'll be here a couple more years to help me keep learning."
Palmer and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller traveled similar paths to the NFL -- both were high school stars in Southern California who played for Pac-10 schools (Boller at California) and were taken in the first round of the 2003 draft -- but their courses then diverged. Boller, the 19th overall pick, was immediately thrown in as the Ravens' starter.
Naturally, Boller said he prefers his experience to that of Palmer's ("It kills me to be on the bench, watching," he said). When Boller takes the field on Sunday, he will be making his 14th start.
"He had that year to kind of learn things in a different way," said Boller, who considers Palmer a friend. "All I can say for myself is that year experience that I got really helped me out, and I feel more comfortable now."
Boller, 23, has completed 57.1 percent of his passes (32 for 56) for 289 yards and has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season. Palmer, 24, has completed 60 percent of his passes (39 for 65) and two touchdowns.
"I like where our guy's at," Billick said. "I'm sure they like where their guy's at."
Ravens Notes: Deion Sanders (hamstring) missed portions of Wednesday's practice and is listed as questionable for Sunday.
"When you're 50 years old, you're going to be questionable every week. Deion will be questionable every week," Billick said with a smile when asked about Sanders's status for the Bengals. "When you're that old, and you've played this long, questionable is pretty good." Sanders is 37. . . .
Nose tackle Kelly Gregg (knee) and tackle Ethan Brooks (knee) are also questionable. Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap (ankle) and wide receiver Travis Taylor (groin) are doubtful, and center Mike Flynn (collarbone) is out. . . .
The Ravens signed tackle Marques Ogden (Howard), the younger brother of Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden, defensive end Demetrin Veal and cornerback Calvin Carlyle to the practice squad. The team terminated the practice-squad contracts of defensive lineman David Upchurch (Eleanor Roosevelt High), linebacker Brandon Barnes and center Lenny Vandermede.