O Brother, Where Art Thou? The End of the Palmer Era

We’ve now had time. Time to look back, to think, to ruminate about the end of an era, about a time when a young man named Palmer played quarterback for the Bengals. And, no, we’re not talking about Carson.

Oh, Jordan. With his release by the Bengals last week, the team cut ties with the man who during the NFL lockout acted as the team’s next leader, organizing makeshift practices with the playbook put together by new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, himself a man living in his brother’s shadow. Detached from Carson, whom he only addressed as a “former teammate,” the younger Palmer seemed to actually believe he was the heir apparent to the starting role—like it was a pair of Toughskins his mother gave him once Carson outgrew them.

Of course, despite his best efforts and sudden take-charge attitude, it was never going to happen for the former sixth-round pick of the Washington Redskins. Even for a franchise that has sent out a ramshackle assemblage of quarterbacks well past their peaks—Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte, Neil O’Donnell—and a plethora of players whose careers were never destined to even reach a prime—Donald Hollas, David Kingler, Erik Wilhelm, Paul Justin—Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown were never going to allow Jordan Palmer to actually start an NFL game. To most of us, he was the harmless young man who developed a mobile app that let people know what they missed should they go to the bathroom during a movie. He was simply Carson’s little brother. Nothing less, nothing more.

But perhaps he was something more—a symbol of how much culpability Carson Palmer shares in the franchise’s misfortunes since he and Lewis arrived in 2003. While much has been said and written about the era of the diva receivers—in which the Bengals let Chad Johnson-Ochocinco pull pranks and tweet unfettered—what’s less talked about is Carson’s role in that circus. Wasn’t it Carson who clamored for veteran receiving help following the 2008 season, who convinced the Bengals to sign an aged, slow-moving Laveranues Coles to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh after the latter bolted in free agency? It was Carson Palmer who worked out with Terrell Owens before the start of last season, again pleading for the team to sign him, thus bringing the T.Ocho, Batman-and-Robin tandem from an ill-conceived idea into a living, breathing nightmare. Would the Bengals really have signed Jordan Palmer if not for Carson’s influence on Mike Brown’s decisions?

In 2010, when Carson had more pass attempts than at any time in his career and started every game during the team’s god-awful 10-game losing streak, Bengals nation couldn’t call for the backup quarterback, traditionally the most-popular player on a losing team, because that player was Jordan Palmer. Indeed, even if the team and coaching staff had wanted to move on from Carson, how on Earth would that new direction take shape? Would Carson simply hand the ball to Jordan and whisper, It’s your time bro?

In fact, it was never time for Baby Palmer. In 2008, with Carson felled by a season-ending elbow injury, I was among a handful of fans who kept coming to The Bottom Line—Washington D.C.’s Bengals bar—as Palmer’s then-backup Ryan “Crazy Legs” Fitzpatrick continually looked off open receivers in favor of running for negative yardage. Time and again, the call came for Jordan—then we actually saw him play. In retrospect, clamoring for Jordan seems akin to the well-heeled crowd at Centre Court demanding Patrick McEnroe sub for John if his brother had gotten hurt in the midst of his epic 1980 Wimbledon match with Björn Borg.

Now both Palmers are gone, just like that. Of course a team’s franchise player should be consulted, should have a say in picking the players who surround him—the players who will make him better and help the team (get ready for this Bengals fans) have a chance to actually win. In this case, it was simply the wrong person choosing the wrong pieces. With Jordan’s dismissal, we can finally say goodbye to Carson. That leaves only us, ourselves dysfunctional in our familial fandom, brothers in a lost common cause.

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