HEAD GAMES DOCTOR: BRAIN TYPE COULD LIMIT PALMER'S SUCCESS.
Byline: Billy Witz Staff Writer
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Draw up a prototype for the modern NFL quarterback and he might look like this: 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, sturdy enough to stand tall in the pocket, but nimble enough to scramble out of harm's way. He'd have an arm strong enough to fight gravity and accurate enough to put the ball in a bread box.
Or a lot like Carson Palmer.
It's those gifts that led the Cincinnati Bengals to invest up to $49 million and the No. 1 pick in last year's draft in Palmer after he won the Heisman Trophy at USC.
It's also why Bengals coach Marvin Lewis anointed Palmer the starter in February ahead of veteran Jon Kitna, who last season helped Cincinnati match its best record in 13 years. Palmer's first pro snap will come on the road this Sunday against the New York Jets.
``He has all the tools,'' said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, one of the NFL's most respected authorities on quarterbacks. ``I don't believe it will happen this year - even Peyton Manning struggled his first year - but he's going to be a great one.''
Jon Niednagel isn't so sure.
Niednagel has never coached football beyond Pop Warner and last played the game in the '60s, when he was in high school. The so-called Brain Doctor, whose most advanced degree is in finance, has made a career out of analyzing ``brain types'' of athletes. As a result, he is less interested in tools than in wiring.
Palmer, he says, is not suited for starring as an NFL quarterback.
``As they say in these parts,'' said Niednagel, a longtime resident of Laguna Beach who now lives in rural Missouri. ``You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.''
Niednagel, who has written an extensive evaluation of Palmer on his Web site (braintypes.com), says Palmer's sensitivity and desire for perfection make for a great teammate and pupil, but prevent his muscles from functioning well under pressure.
Niednagel adds Palmer will have some games where he looks like the best quarterback in the NFL. In the right circumstances, he might even reach a Pro Bowl or Super Bowl. But the odds of him achieving that kind of success - let alone sustaining it - are long.
His suggested sport for Palmer: bowling.
In football, where evaluations are made watching film and clocking 40-yard dash times, this is mostly dismissed as psycho-babble, even by free thinkers who aren't about to betray their eyes and experience.
``To me, it's a distraction,'' Walsh said of neuro-psychological profiles. ``It may be of some value, but it's just a small component of evaluating a quarterback.''
USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who has a doctorate in educational psychology, says he would put more stock in Niednagel's opinion if he had interviewed Palmer. Niednagel drew his conclusion from studying reams of print and TV interviews of Palmer.
``If he'd studied the kid, maybe I could buy some of that,'' Chow said. ``To make that evaluation without interviewing Carson is wrong.''
Yet there are some who buy Niednagel's evaluations - quite literally. Minnesota Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale and Denver Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe have hired him as a consultant, and Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge says he'd rather have Niednagel evaluating players than Red Auerbach, Jerry West or Phil Jackson.
A better endorsement might come from the San Diego Chargers, who were warned by Niednagel before the 1998 draft that unlike Manning, Ryan Leaf would not develop into a franchise quarterback, even though most scouts considered them equals.
After the Colts took Manning with the first pick, San Diego chose Leaf anyway at No. 2. In the end, the Colts had a league MVP and the Chargers a mistake that cost them millions and set their franchise back years.
That evaluation even piques the curiosity of Palmer.
``Oh, really?'' said Palmer, who had never heard of Niednagel. ``He was right about Leaf and right about Manning, so who knows?''
But when Palmer is given a summary of Niednagel's analysis, he doesn't flinch.
``You learn at this position that, who cares what people are saying about you,'' Palmer said. ``You never listen to what the media is saying. You never listen to what's going on outside other than what people in your organization, your coaches, your teammates say.''
Then, for a moment, Palmer wonders just who is this Niednagel guy.
``It's tough for somebody who doesn't know you to make assumptions about you,'' he said. ``I don't know him, so obviously he doesn't know me.''
Palmer then was asked if he was a psychology major. ``No,'' he said with a smile. ``I definitely wasn't.''
A rare type
If Palmer is conflicted about this subject, he is not alone. It's the age-old debate about nature vs. nurture. Or, in this case, whether great quarterbacks are born or made.
What Niednagel suggests is that at least 65 percent of who we are and what we can be is determined by biology: how the neural networks in our brain are wired. In most people, he says, this is apparent by the age 5.
``We all have limitations,'' Niednagel said. ``I have 'em, you have 'em, Carson has 'em. If I've got a 'coon dog, I can't change him into anything else.''
No, but he can teach him new tricks.
Niednagel says Bill Parcells did this successfully with Drew Bledsoe in New England, simplifying schemes and taking some of the decision-making out of his quarterback's hands. Together, they reached the Super Bowl.
In Palmer's case, it is how he managed to win a Heisman Trophy, become the top pick in the draft and earn millions.
``Even if a quarterback has the top brain type, unless he's coached properly, he'll never make it,'' Niednagel said. ``There are some who aren't wired as good, but have better coaches, work harder and have better players around them.''
Niednagel has identified 16 brain types, derived roughly from the four personality-type dichotomies of the Myers-Briggs test, made vogue by the business world. The difference, is that Niednagel believes brain types carry physiological as well as personality traits.
Niednagel classifies Palmer's brain type, in the Myers-Briggs vernacular, as ISFJ - introverted, sensing, feeling and judging.
It is so rare among athletes that Niednagel has never seen it in an NFL quarterback. He rates ISFJ among the bottom half of brain types for quarterbacks, but declined to be more specific.
ISFJ types possess dominant gross motor skills, allowing them to throw the ball long and hard, he says. They're also perfectionists, disciplined and able to throw extremely accurately - when relaxed.
Therein lies the rub. ISFJ's are normally timid and cautious, preferring the background to center stage. They're more likely to dwell on mistakes and when anxious, they'll develop tunnel vision and their big muscle groups stiffen, leading to stiffly thrown passes that are short of the target.
This might describe the Palmer many people saw during his first four years at USC, when he threw as many interceptions (39) as touchdown passes. In fact, Chow was so frustrated by Palmer's inability to grasp his offense that he seriously considered benching Palmer for then-redshirting freshman Matt Leinart when the Trojans began the 2001 season 2-5.
``He's not a multi-task processor. He's not very good at juggling a lot of balls at once,'' Niednagel said. ``He's not the kind of guy who is going to come in and read a play on the board and know it. Reps are important.''
While Chow concurs on the importance of repetition, he attributes Palmer's struggles to having to learn three offenses in four years.
What made his senior season so successful?
``Everything came together,'' Palmer said. ``We'd been together as a unit with the coaching staff for a second year, and having a guy like (Chow) was awesome. The one thing he brought was comfort in the offense. He didn't ask me to do things I wasn't comfortable doing.''
Mind over matter?
Kitna was the only NFL quarterback to take every one of his team's snaps last season. The clipboard Palmer held during games might have served as a useful notepad last fall.
In many ways, Palmer knows he couldn't have asked for a better mentor than Kitna, who has been gracious about losing his job, even though he had a better quarterback rating than Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.
There is also a bond away from football: Both are married and deeply religious.
``You have to know when to let your mind relax and be the husband,'' Palmer said. ``You have so many media demands, an interview here, a radio show here - it's so much pressure, especially if you're not winning. There's so much built-up stress and pressure and so much weight on your shoulders that it can wear you down. I had a great mentor to watch him handle that stuff. I realize, too, at the same time, he's an eight-year vet.''
The Bengals have watched young quarterbacks Akili Smith and David Klingler fail and are taking steps at every level of the organization to ease Palmer's transition.
They have built a strong foundation on the field. Pro Bowler Chad Johnson leads the receiving corps, tailback Rudi Johnson shows great promise and Willie Anderson and Levi Jones are one of the NFL's best bookend tackles.
The team's billboard campaign in Cincinnati centers on Johnson rather than the quarterback they awarded a $10-million signing bonus. It wasn't a coincidence Lewis named Palmer the starter seven months ago.
``We were about to enter free agency, and there was a lot of indecision on our guys' part,'' Lewis said. ``The whole turmoil gets in the way of what they're doing. I wanted to take all the mystery out of it.''
While Palmer regularly wowed his teammates in practice last season, they're doing their part to lower expectations, too. One of the statistical reminders of last season is the Bengals' record in games they turned the ball over more than twice: 0-6.
``Carson's not going to get us to the playoffs himself,'' said Anderson, the Pro Bowl tackle.
Palmer has been solid during his four exhibition games. But the real test begins Sunday.
``I want to see how he handles the flow of the football game,'' Lewis said. ``You have to handle a bad series, a dropped ball, good plays, bad plays - just handling it and going back and playing. Any quarterback has to deal with that. In your first year, everybody's looking to see how you deal with it.''
Including someone, somewhere, in the Show-Me State, who will be looking for Palmer to show him signs of how this tug-of-war will play out, whether or not it will be mind over matter.