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Bengals' rebound depends on Palmer

Bengals' rebound depends on PalmerCINCINNATI (AP) - Carson Palmer is sure of one thing.

"We're not going to win four games again," he said.

If he's healthy, he's probably right. A lot of things would have to go wrong again for the Bengals to have another four-win season - say, the starting quarterback going down before the season is a month old. That's what happened a year ago, when Palmer tore up his passing elbow and the offense took the rest of the season off along with him.

Palmer is back, and his health will go a long way in determining if the Bengals are back, too. If he can stay on the field, his team could improve from awful to average, the place it has finished most years under coach Marvin Lewis.

In that regard, they're not off to an encouraging start.

Palmer was hit several times in the preseason opener and left the game with a moderate high-ankle sprain, the kind that tends to linger and get worse with every hit. He expects to start the opener against Denver on Sept. 13 at Paul Brown Stadium.

After missing three preseason games - more than he missed when he was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery in 2006 - there's a question how sharp he can be for a team that really needs a fast start.

"I feel like I'm prepared," Palmer said. "This isn't the best of situations, but you've got to go with what you've got. Would I like to have played? Sure. I'd like to have played all four games."

No surprise that the training staff chose to be cautious. The Bengals found out last year how much they need this one player.

Palmer tore a ligament and tendon in the elbow when his arm was hit while he threw a pass. While it healed with rest, the rest of the offense plummeted to last in the NFL. Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn't throw deep and had little time anyway - remarkably, he ended up the team's leading rusher in three games while trying to avoid sacks.

It didn't help that receiver Chad Ochocinco was grousing about not getting traded in the offseason and the corps of running backs was virtually wiped out by injury. When it came to moving the ball, no one was worse.

"It was the most miserable season I've ever had as a coach," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said.

The misery begat change.

There's a more pronounced emphasis on the running game, which foundered even before Palmer got hurt. The Bengals signed Cedric Benson when there was almost no one left to carry the ball last season, and he played well enough to earn another contract. He's the focal point of a renewed commitment to running the ball.

"In the division we play in, we've got to run the ball, and we showed that we're going to feature the run and hopefully throw off the running game," Palmer said.

That only works when Palmer is the one doing the throwing. The Bengals got rid of Fitzpatrick and brought in J.T. O'Sullivan as the backup, but it's still a huge drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2.

"I think when Carson's in there, it might ease a lot of people's minds from top to bottom in this organization," Benson said. "Guys probably feel more comfortable to open things up, to do a lot more. But you've got to roll with what you've got and make it work."

An engaged Ochocinco would help. His unhappiness last year seeped into his statistics: 540 catches, the fewest since his rookie season. He recommitted himself in the offseason, staying in shape by working out like a boxer. He also reverted to his role of a self-made celebrity, spreading his thoughts on any topic through Twitter feeds, Ustream episodes and HBO's "Hard Knocks" programs.

"I'm back," Ochocinco said. "I can't explain it any other way. Before last year, this is how I was. I was good. I was happy. I'm good. It's going to be a great year. We're going to the playoffs. We're going, man."

Not so fast.

The defense finished middle-of-the-pack last year, a major improvement in the first season under coach Mike Zimmer. The core of the unit is back, another reason to think a repeat four-win season could easily be avoided. More likely, the Bengals could finish around the break-even mark - they finished at .500 or within a game of it during four of Lewis' six seasons.

The playoffs? Ochocinco forgot one thing he should know by now, something that was the launching point for one of the "Hard Knocks" episodes in which he was featured so prominently.

The episode opens with Lewis leaving his home at 5 a.m., heading to the stadium to start work before sunrise. He drives up to the stadium's parking garage gate, swipes his Bengals ID card through the card reader and gets no response. Another swipe. Nothing happens. Lewis laughs at the absurdity.

"Hah-hah-hah, the gate's still broke," he said. "Got to go around."

He backs up his SUV and carefully drives over a curb to get into the parking garage, laughing loudly at the silly and symbolic moment.

With this franchise, there's always something in the way.

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Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: September 7, 2009

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