With the epic showdown between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ken Dorsey just four days away, now is as good a time as any to consider what the Bengals ought to do at quarterback in 2009.
With any luck at all, Carson Palmer will return to the starting lineup. Palmer is practicing this week, but few expect the Bengals to put him back out on the field this season, and surgery — which could sideline Carson until training camp — has not been ruled out.
But even if Palmer has no further troubles with his elbow, his injury history is unsettling. Between 2008 and 2004, Carson will have missed nearly a full season’s worth of games, 15 (as well as nearly all of the team’s playoff appearance in 2005) in five years as the Bengals’ starting QB. “Injury-prone” is probably too strong a description, especially compared to other Bengals like RB Chris Perry, who appeared in just 22 games from 2004 through 2007, but there’s no doubt that the injury bug has plagued Palmer’s career. So, with Fitzpatrick headed to free agency next year, backup QB is among the issues the team will have to address. What are the options?
Option 1: Re-sign Fitzpatrick. Ryan’s performance this year has been nothing to write home about, but much of his struggles stem from the team’s lousy offensive line and impotent running attack. As has been tirelessly pointed out, the Bengals weren’t doing much better when it was Pro Bowler Carson Palmer getting smacked around behind center. And both the Jacksonville and Washington victories demonstrated that with decent line play and a ground game, Fitzpatrick can win. By the end of the season, Fitz looks to have a dozen starts with the team under his belt and, potentially, a record of 4-7-1 if the Bengals run the table in the last three weeks. Between 1991 and 2002 the Bengals had seven entire seasons with four or fewer wins, so the prospect of Fitz getting that many in just 12 outings with this clunker of a squad suggests he may end up deserving a little more credit that he commonly gets.
The counter-argument is, all that said, he’s still not very good. The Bengals could sign any number of journeyman quarterbacks and likely get similar results, and Fitz’s experience may not count for much if the offense gets blown up in the offseason.
Option 2: Bring back Jon Kitna. The Detroit Lions put Kitna on injured reserve earlier this year, even though the former Bengals signal-caller said that he was healthy enough to play. Kitna is widely expected to be released after the season ends, and as a 36-year-old QB coming off one of the worst teams in football history, isn’t likely to be a hot commodity. Jon was 8-8 as the Bengals’ starting QB in 2003, knows the offense, and is well-respected in the locker room.
The argument against Kitna is that, like Fitzpatrick, he isn’t all that good and, also like Fitz, his experience may not count for much if the offense is radically overhauled next year.
Option 3: Sign [insert name here]. Pick a free agent, any free agent. Every year, there are washouts and aging vets floating around looking for a job. Last year, it was players like Byron Leftwich, now in Pittsburgh, and Daunte Culpepper, who ended up in Detroit. There will be more like them in 2009.
The trouble with this option is that it takes two to tango, and any veteran QB with visions of regaining a No. 1 spot will be very reluctant to sign in Cincy, where his only hope of a long-term starting job is a career-ending injury to Palmer.
Option 4: Draft a developmental project in the middle rounds. This is what the Bengals tried to do with former fifth-round pick Jeff Rowe. Obviously, they failed, and Rowe is now in Seattle. Drafting a project QB gives them a backup for both the short and medium term and, if he turns out to be any good, could possibly be traded for a higher pick three or four years hence.
The snag in this approach is simply that the Bengals are a bad team with needs at just about every position and can ill-afford to spend even a late-round selection on a backup QB. They are also notoriously bad at developing players.
Option 5: Palmer & Palmer. The Bengals could choose to commit to Carson’s younger brother Jordan. It’s not clear if the Bengals brought Jordan aboard because they really thought he’d make a good backup, or as a sop to their franchise QB, but Kid Palmer has seen a few snaps this year (he’s 7 for 12, 41 yards, no TDs and 2 picks) and many fans have been screaming for him to replace Fitzpatrick for weeks.
However, whether Jordan would be interested in backing up Carson long-term is another question. Like all QBs, he wants to start, and only signed on in Cincinnati after it became clear no one else wanted him. There is also the question of whether he’s actually any good.
Option 6: Trash pickin’. Knowing the Bengals, this strikes me as the most likely option. Here, the Bengals sign one or two undrafted free agent QBs, and maybe bring in an OWUD (Old Washed-Up Dude) at the position as well. And we all hope Palmer doesn’t get hurt again, because if he does, we’re done…again. The problem with this scenario is obvious: it never works, and leaves the team in the same boat the following year.
My own inclination is to just stick with Fitz and, perhaps, Jordan, because the Bengals have bigger fish to fry. But I reserve the right to change my mind.