GEORGETOWN, Ky. - In his first preseason game action for the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend, rookie quarterback Carson Palmer threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns by the New York Jets.
When he finally hit a Bengals receiver in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, teammate Duane Clemons rushed to present him with the ball from his first touchdown pass in the NFL.
But in a moment both revealing and enticing, Palmer declined the commemorative ball. "Don't worry about it," he told Clemons. "That's my third."
Of such humble beginnings are NFL legends born. With that retort, the Bengals glimpsed their quarterbacking future. They like what they see.
"The biggest thing that stands out about Carson is his humbleness and his character," said right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, an eight-year veteran. "Throwing those two picks the other day, I've seen other quarterbacks around here [do that] before where their head would be down. They just sulked. They'd never have come back and engineered a touchdown drive the way he did."
Clarity has arrived at this sleepy college town where the Bengals have held training camp the past seven years. Its face belongs to Palmer, the first pick in April's NFL draft and Cincinnati's hope for the future.
It's only preseason, but Palmer, 23, already has won over his teammates with uncommon poise and exceptional talent.
"He's going to be great," wide receiver Peter Warrick said. "He just needs time. You can't rush a person into something."
New Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the one-time defensive coordinator of the Ravens, is banking on it.
"He's a tough guy, and the talent is off the chart as far as the ability to throw the football," Lewis said. "He works hard at it. ... He had good coaching at USC, but obviously when you can do it 24/7, it makes a big difference."
The Bengals, who earned the right to take Palmer by going 2-14 last season, want to proceed slowly with their newest prodigy.
With good reason.
In 1999, under coach Bruce Coslet, the Bengals inserted rookie quarterback Akili Smith, the third overall pick, into the lineup in Week 5, although he had missed two preseason games in a holdout. Smith won only three games in four years and was released in June.
Lewis seems determined not to repeat the mistake. He named veteran Jon Kitna the starter in the offseason and penciled in another vet, Shane Matthews, as the backup.
To facilitate Palmer's development, Lewis brought in quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, the passing game coach with the St. Louis Rams last season, whose father is former NFL offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese.
What impressed Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski most about Palmer's performance against the Jets was his composure. First, Palmer was playing in a driving rainstorm. Then his helmet communicator with the sideline went out. That led to one delay-of-game penalty.
The interceptions are correctable. Poise is inherent.
"I can't give that to someone. I can't coach it," Bratkowski said. "You have to have it. And man, he stood tall in the pocket and was relaxed. You can tell a lot of times young quarterbacks get in there and have happy feet; you can see they're nervous with their feet. There was no sign of that at all with him."
Palmer, whose older brother, Robert, lives in the Baltimore area, is already adjusting to the NFL's faster tempo. "Because holes are closing quick and receivers are faster, you speed up your arm and your mind in reading defenses," he said.
Even though Palmer partially tore the plantar fascia tendon in his right foot against the Jets, he expects to play in tomorrow night's preseason game against the Detroit Lions.
"You never want to start off your NFL career throwing two interceptions," he said, "but it's two opportunities I had a chance to learn from. I'm a better player now that I've learned my lesson throwing the out ball too far inside a receiver. And when it's raining, you've got to put the ball on a guy's chest.
"I can definitely play better, I know that."
Those words are salve for Cincinnati's long-suffering fans. This time, perhaps, the Bengals got the right quarterback.
"I would certainly say from what I know now, I think we have the real deal," Bratkowski said. "We'll find out more. Every indication I have at this point is that we do."