GEORGETOWN — The Bengals started a new era in their history on Friday, opening training camp without Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco for the first time in nine years. Not a good start.
The Bengals went 4-12 last year, then had one of the worst off-seasons in franchise history, which is saying a lot. Palmer decided he'd rather retire than play another day in Cincinnati, players got arrested and many fans wrote off the franchise as hopeless.
The Bengals lost cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who signed with Houston as a free agent, on the eve of camp. The cornerback who was first in line to replace him — Adam "Pacman" Jones — can't fully practice for a few weeks because he's still recovering from neck surgery.
Linebacker Keith Rivers also is sidelined following wrist surgery, leaving the defense with a lot of big holes. Coordinator Mike Zimmer was visibly glum as he wheeled his luggage up to his dorm room at Georgetown College, where the Bengals will have their first workout on Saturday.
"I've been in the tank since 6 o'clock last night," Zimmer said, referring to the time he heard Joseph was leaving. "But I'm going to get out of it quick."
Joseph teamed with Leon Hall to form one of the league's steadiest cornerback tandems. The Bengals allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent but seemed confident they would be able to keep him. Zimmer was told to expect him back when the NFL's lockout ended. The Bengals even assigned him a dorm room for camp and put his name on the green front door.
So much for that.
"The contingency right now is to figure out who the next guy is, whether he's here in training camp or he's on the street somewhere or he's on another team or he's in Canada," Zimmer said. "Who knows? We've got to find somebody who can play."
Losing Joseph was a huge setback.
"Of course it's a shock," Jones said. "J-Jo's been here for five years and he's one of the best players on the team. When you hear it, it's very shocking."
The Bengals didn't assign a dorm room for Palmer — no shock there.
Palmer stunned the organization by asking for a trade following a 4-12 season. He said he would rather retire than play another year for one of the NFL's most forlorn franchises, with only two winning records in the last 20 years.
Owner Mike Brown insisted this week that he wouldn't trade Palmer, who was placed on a reserve list for players who didn't report to camp on Friday.
Palmer's decision to stay away surprised his teammates initially, but they've come to accept it.
"People just realized he was frustrated," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "But there's a lot of teams around the league that have frustrating years, and it doesn't mean you quit and walk away."
Although they say they won't trade Palmer because it would amount to rewarding someone who wants out, they sent Ochocinco to New England for draft picks on Thursday night. The self-promoting receiver had tried to get traded three years ago, but the Bengals refused.
"Chad was a great teammate and a lot of fun," Whitworth said. "I enjoyed him every day. But he's moved on, too. It's definitely going to be different. Now it's a chance for the younger guys on the team to step up and make this their football team and leave their legacy."
The Bengals added to their legacy of off-field problems this month, when Jones and free-agent running back Cedric Benson were arrested. Both could be disciplined by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Jones hurt his neck last season and needed surgery. He had another procedure over the summer to help it heal. Jones said on Friday that he probably won't be allowed to participate in any drills that involve contact for two or three weeks.
Jones knows that fans are expecting another dreary season in Cincinnati because of all the change.
"All I've got to say is: There's going to be bright days on the other end," Jones said. "I promise you we won't be 4-12 this year."