Palmer and Ochocinco: Stars in Name Only

As far as I can tell, the Cincinnati Bengals will not be a very good football team this year. I’m certainly no expert, but I have been a Bengals (and football) fan my entire life, and I just don’t see good things on the immediate horizon for the men in stripes. They’ve made some smart decisions for the future (drafting Dalton and Green, extending Whitworth, Hall, and Cook), but those moves will take some time to (hopefully) pay dividends. Until then, this season could be rough for many, many reasons—none of which have anything to do with Carson Palmer or Chad Ochocinco.

Both Palmer and Ochocinco were clearly great players for the Bengals at times during their careers, but that was a long time ago. Regardless of what their Pro Bowl résumés might suggest or what the mainstream sports media might want you to believe, the impending troubles for Cincinnati will not be the result of the departures of these one-time superstars. They are losses in name only.

Need proof? Check the stats. Chad, in my opinion, was the best wideout in the league from 2003 to 2007. Five seasons, five Pro Bowls, five years of more than 1,250 yards, five years of more than 85 catches, five years with at least seven touchdowns. He scared the hell out of every defensive back lining up across from him. I can distinctly remember the Monday Night game against the Denver Broncos in 2004 when Chad embarrassed Champ Bailey, one of the top corners in the league at the time, to the tune of 149 yards and a long touchdown. My father, who has a much deeper knowledge of the team’s history than me, said he would rank Chad as a Top 10 Bengal all-time, and as the squad’s No. 1 or No. 2 receiver ever. But that was then. As the cliché goes, Father Time is undefeated. Over the past three seasons, Chad averaged just 64 catches, 806 yards, 5.7 touchdowns, and 55.4 yards per game, a stark decline from his previously consistent output. Is Chad really better than A.J. Green or Jerome Simpson right now? And won’t his skills only continue to decline?

Carson wasn’t great for as long or as consistently as Chad, but given the importance of the quarterback position in the NFL, you could argue that his heights were even higher than Ochocinco’s. At his peak, Palmer was a mastermind on the gridiron, chopping up opposing defenses like a chef at Benihana. In his Pro Bowl season of 2005 (the first time the Bengals won the AFC North), Carson completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for more than 3,800 yards with 32 touchdowns (career high) and only 12 interceptions (career low for a full season). After the (cheap shot) tackle in the playoffs that blasted Palmer’s knee like a piñata, his stats (and psyche) took a hit, but he bounced back pretty well, all things considered. He actually went back to the Pro Bowl with similar numbers in 2006. It was a year later that his interception numbers (and instances of questionable decision making) started to rise. In 2008, he had a putrid four games to start the season before shutting it down for the year with an injured elbow.

The next two seasons, Carson’s stock started tanking—fast. In 2009, he barely hit 3,000 yards passing with a completion percentage just above 60. His struggles were overshadowed by a good overall season for the team, which rode power running from Cedric Benson and staunch defense to a 10-6 record and yet another AFC North title. Palmer served mainly as a game manager, the gleam from a playoff run blinding many to his on-field struggles. But last year, it all came crashing down. Palmer again had a completion percentage just above 60, on top of 20 (killer) interceptions. Yes, his yardage (3,900-plus) and TDs (26) were up, but that was largely a result of the team constantly being down by 25, which was in turn largely a result of Carson’s turnovers and poor decisions. It’s easy to sling touchdowns when the second-team defense is in prevent coverage.

But as much as the stats tell us, the only evidence Bengals fans truly need is what they can see with their own two eyes. Toward the end of his Cincinnati tenure, Palmer was taking too many sacks, locking on receivers far too often, and ending drives and games with awful turnovers. Same thing with Chad. His speed decreased, his separation grew smaller and smaller, his spectacular catches less and less spectacular. Oh, and last season, with Chad and Carson, the Bengals went 4-12. How much worse could they possibly be without them? (Don’t answer that…)

You can make arguments for both sides of the “Carson Palmer taking his ball and going home” situation, and in the end, I appreciate everything Chad Johnson/Ochocinco did for the Bengals and the city of Cincinnati. I will always remember 2005 and 2009. But the impact of their absence on the roster this season will be minimal.

It will undoubtedly get worse before it gets better for the Bengals without those two, but it was already heading south—and fast—with them. At least now, you can make the case that they’re heading in the right direction. And I suppose that’s better than nothing.

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