When it became apparent that Carson Palmer really was done as the Cincinnati Bengals' starting quarterback—not just traded or released, but done, as in retired from pro football—the first question that came to my mind was: How should we remember Palmer's career?
Would it be accurate to call him a mediocre quarterback or another No. 1 draft pick bust when he won a Heisman Trophy, made two Pro Bowls and threw for more than 22,000 yards and 150 touchdowns in the NFL?
Then again, could you rightfully call Palmer a good QB when he finished with a 46-53 win-loss record, tossed nearly 100 interceptions in six full seasons as a starter and posted a career passer rating (86.9) that was lower than Chad Pennington's?
It will take time and perspective to truly tell Palmer's complicated legacy, though, which brings up the second question in his retirement aftermath: What will the Bengals do now?
Palmer was the face of the franchise—even when Chad Ochocinco was the mouth—for the majority of the last decade. He took the Bengals to the 2006 playoffs, the first time they'd been since Boomer Esiason was running the show, and again in 2010.
Cincinnati responded in a hurry, agreeing to contract terms with free-agent quarterback Bruce Gradkowski on Wednesday. A part-time starter with the Bucs, Browns and Raiders in his five seasons as a pro, Gradkowski will go into training camp competing with second-round draft pick Andy Dalton, who many see as the franchise's QB of the future.
Here are five reasons why Gradkowski should be the QB of the present.
Make no mistake, the Bengals are rebuilding. Again.
Last season's 4-12 finish was a disaster of a follow-up to the previous year's playoff berth, and this summer Cincy could very likely lose its best running back (Cedric Benson), two best receivers (Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco) and half of a stellar cornerback tandem (Johnathan Joseph), in addition to Palmer.
And the upheaval doesn't stop there, as Jay Gruden is on board as the Bengals' new offensive coordinator, bringing with him a new system.
Look at it from Dalton's view: The 2011 offseason is short (thanks to the lockout), the playbook is thick, the offensive line isn't great and it's not like he can rely on a host of teammates who already know the system to cover his rookie mistakes.
Every sign should be pointing to Cincy's coaching staff taking things slow with the kid. If they have a viable alternative, why turn Dalton into the next David Carr?
For the first two years in the NFL, Gradkowski played for Jay Gruden and Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, making 11 starts as a rookie and seeing action in 15 games overall. His tenure included a streak of 200 pass attempts between his first and second career interceptions, an NFL record.
Gradkowski knows the Gruden offense as well as anybody on the Bengals, giving him an automatic advantage in the QB competition and a convenient starter during the entire team's transition period.
Cincinnati's offensive line only gave up 28 sacks last season, eighth best in the NFL. That's impressive on paper, especially considering that Carson Palmer wasn't exactly Randall Cunningham as a scrambler. But you could also say that Palmer's tendency to throw the ball too early—and, as a result, inaccurately—made for that low number.
In other words, Palmer theoretically didn't get sacked a lot because he was so worried about getting sacked that he developed a premature trigger.
Gradkowski is a tough QB who will stand in and take some hits. Better yet, he will use his feet to avoid the pass rush and make plays on the move. His style is reminiscent of Jeff Garcia, and Gradkowski has run for 332 yards while averaging 4.2 yards per carry in his career.
If he can stay healthy on those trips outside the pocket, Gradkowski can keep Cincinnati's offense somewhat moving while the Bengals shore up their O-line.
Believe it or not, pro sports teams do listen to their fans and the media that covers them.
How many quarterback controversies have been decided (in part) by public opinion? How many trades and free-agent signings haven't happened—think Michael Vick and pet-loving Seattle—because a team's front office recognized the fanbase wouldn't accept a certain player, or that the city's media scrutiny would be too much for a player to handle?
Although the public will want to see Dalton take over, Gradkowski should be able to initially win them over. How? Because Gradkowski is the kind of player that resonates with fans. He's a starter who looks and trains like a backup, with his below-average height, ordinary arm strength and underdog mentality. And he's already something of a local hero, having played his college ball at Toledo.
Being a fan favorite may not help Gradkowski win the starting QB job, but it will help him keep it for a while. If the Bengals are losing games but Gradkowski is clearly leaving his guts on the field every week, the blame won't fall as much on his shoulders like it does for so many other quarterbacks. The campaign to banish him to the bench won't build up steam as quickly.
More importantly than the fans and media, Gradkowski will win the allegiance and respect of his teammates.
Offensive linemen like blocking for a blue-collar QB—bonus points if he can help them out by regularly scrambling away from trouble. Defensive players will go to bat for that kind of leader. You might have a problem with diva receivers who aren't getting enough deep passes, but if T.O. and Ocho are gone, Cincinnati's diva meter drops considerably.
Gradkowski was signed because he can work the short passing game, and if he's getting the majority of reps early in training camp because he knows the offense, he can develop a chemistry with star rookie receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham.