they've been poorly run, but i don't think you can compare today's bengals to when we had carson. yes, we still have the same owner, but we just spent money on good free agents, not players past their prime like aj hawk.
also, we have an offensive minded coach in taylor compared to a defensive one in lewis and the fact that the league is much more QB-friendly now.
i don't think you can say palmer (imo, better than dalton) was elite unless he can lead the team to more wins. i guess it depends on what your definition of 'elite' is, but elite to me is brady, rodgers, brees, who can will their teams to wins, which palmer wasn't able to do.