“The hit heard ‘round the world”.
Well, I suppose that’s how some may refer to what transpired on January 8th, 2006. On the Cincinnati Bengals’ second offensive play from scrimmage in the Wild Card contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers, defensive tackle Kimo Von Oelhoffen tumbled into Carson Palmer’s left knee after completing a 66-yard pass to Chris Henry.
He tore two ligaments and had his kneecap dislocate on the play. Jon Kitna filled in admirably, but the Bengals’ Cinderella season ended with a 31-17 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
Fifteen years. That’s how long Bengals fans had waited to once again be proud of their team and how long the drought between playoff berths was back in 2005.
For some who are new around these parts, the heartbreak ushered in 2011-2015 might be your first tastes of Bengals heartbreak. But, for those of us with longer memories and relationships with this team, there are deeper wounds.
When Palmer arrived in 2003, hand-in-hand with new head coach Marvin Lewis, the team seemed to finally be headed in a direction many could get behind. And, after two 8-8 seasons (a Lewis staple), “The Golden Boy” was bringing the Bengals to the promised land in 2005.
That year, Palmer threw for 3.836 yards, 32 touchdowns and an insane 67.8 completion percentage. Sure, he had a great receiving corps with Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Henry, Kelly Washington and Kevin Walter, coupled with a great offensive line, but “the human jugs machine” looked every bit the part of a former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall selection.
There is so much irony to Palmer’s injury. Aside from the continuing belief that the Bengals and their fans aren’t allowed to have nice things, the fact that he was injured by Von Oelhoffen is borderline comical.
After all, the defensive tackle played for Cincinnati his first six years in the league and was knee-deep (see what I did there?) in “The Lost Decade” that was the Bengals in the 1990s.
Aside from that aspect, a big rivalry had been brewing between the Steelers and the Bengals that year. Pittsburgh, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Baltimore Ravens, were used to being the big bullies on the AFC North’s block. The other clubs didn’t like this brash, explosive and up-and-coming Bengals team pushing back.
Before the hit on Palmer, this rivalry began to crescendo with a Bengals’ win at Heinz Field on December 4th, 2005. It seemingly sewed up a division title for Cincinnati and Houshmandzadeh wiped his cleats with a “Terrible Towel” to the chagrin of Steelers Nation.
The rivalry hasn’t dissipated since, despite what Steelers fans will tell you. From injuries to Andy Dalton, Ryan Shazier, those given out and received by Vontaze Burfict, as well as the near-prison yard scene that was the 2015 Wild Card game, bad blood is at the root of these two teams.
Personally speaking, I grew up in an area where the Palmer hype was born. He went to a local high school (Santa Margarita Catholic) and then vaulted himself to USC. When he and the Bengals began winning, people in Southern California suddenly began paying attention to that small-market team in the Midwest with the cool helmets.
At the time, Palmer was mentioned among the league’s elite. The media can definitely be knee-jerk reactionaries at times, but they weren’t far off base when they mentioned Palmer’s name with the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the best quarterbacks in the league at the time.
We’ll get to what could have transpired, should Palmer have not been injured, in a second. But, before we do, we have to look at what happened with Palmer and the team post-injury.
He made two Pro Bowls as the Bengals’ quarterback (2005, 2006) and led them to another playoff berth in 2009 before leaving the club in the 2011 offseason. However, Palmer suffered other significant injuries to his elbow, nose and ankle before his departure.
Even though he had a great 2015 campaign with the Cardinals, most believe he just wasn’t the same after the knee and elbow injuries. Some point to it as a mental issue, as evidenced with his launching of passes over receivers with frequency (i.e. not properly planting and letting the pass go early), while others will point to a roster breaking down around him.
Regardless of one’s stance, Palmer’s relationship with the Bengals ended with acrimony. And, aside from Von Oelhoffen’s semi-regrets, we’re left with a simple “what could have been?”.
Let’s play “what if?”:
Adding insult to Palmer’s injury is the Steelers’ winning of Super Bowl XL. We’re not going to sit here and say that the Bengals would have gone on to win the big game if Palmer was healthy, but there are signs that they could have done so.
How about Ben Roethlisberger having an amazing 22.6 quarterback rating against the Seahawks, complete with a 9-of-21 completion ratio in the big game? Do we even want to go into the officiating in that contest?
Remember the divisional round after the Steelers knocked Palmer out two plays into the game? Jerome Bettis fumbled the ball away at a critical moment, almost ruining the Steelers’ storybook year. For those who need revisionist history, Bettis was lauded in Detroit (his hometown), after the Super Bowl win.
It took Roethlisberger making a miracle tackle on Nate Harper, who had a weird domestic dispute issue and knife wound in his leg to get Pittsburgh on to the next round.
From there, they beat a Jake Plummer-led Broncos team and then the Seahawks. Credit has to be given to the Steelers, who won their final eight games of the season to get to hoist another Lombardi Trophy. Still, I suppose it pays to be lucky sometimes, over actually being good?
For the Bengals, many believe that if Palmer hadn’t been hurt in that Wild Card contest, the team would have gone on and done great things. I’m not totally sold on that, given the amount of times this franchise has stumbled over its own feet, but, at a minimum, that contest would have been a coin flip if No. 9 played all snaps.
What would have transpired beyond 2005 if he hadn’t been hurt is another question altogether. Cincinnati made Palmer the highest-paid player in the league, but it didn’t result in postseason wins.
Still, I believe that some of those mental demons would have not been there, if not for the Steelers and Von Oelhoffen. By beating Pittsburgh on a huge stage, Cincinnati’s postseason confidence level would have been built and they may have had even more playoff wins under Lewis.
We also can’t say for certain how the acrimonious relationship between Palmer and the team would have gone, had they had that one playoff win. Maybe tensions would have a bit eased, but we can’t know for sure.
You can’t predict injuries, but some of Palmers’ seem to be of the freak nature. Given his immense, raw talent, it’s difficult to believe that the team wouldn’t have won at least one postseason game with a healthy (both physically and mentally) Palmer.
Heck, Dalton might not even be in the picture, if so. Quite the rabbit hole we are going down here, eh?
In both playing and coaching for years, I’ve learned that there is most definitely a mental aspect to various sports. Unfortunately, it’s a facet that is both obvious in Palmer’s NFL career and what has happened to the Bengals on the biggest stages.