CARSON PALMERWILL NEVER FORGET THAT LONG ride home, his iced-up knee not so much in pain butnumb, like the rest of him. He was lying on his side, sprawled across thebackseat of his Chevy Tahoe, staring out an open window as his wife, Shaelyn,pulled away from the downtown stadium and up Third Street. The stadium lightswere sparkling (exploding is the way he remembers them) as the crowd noise roseand fell, and he could see vendors in the parking lots still hawking jerseyswith his number 9 on them. The sensations were as immediate as the twin pops hefelt in his left knee upon releasing his first and only pass of the day, aglorious 66-yard completion that momentarily filled the south Ohio sky withunlimited promise. ¬∂ It was all so sudden, so surreal: a quarterback zoomingaway from his destiny, as if he were Warren Beatty's Joe Pendleton in HeavenCan Wait. Having just turned 26 and been rewarded with a whopper of a birthdaypresent--a nine-year, $118 million contract from an organization once stingierthan Wal-Mart--Palmer now had to confront his football mortality on the veryday he'd intended to showcase his invincibility. What he felt was neither anger(that would come later) nor self-pity. It was more like a combination ofdisplacement and, though it made no rational sense, dishonor.
Palmer wasthinking of his teammates still out there battling the Pittsburgh Steelers.Less than two hours earlier he had been the envied leader of the resurgentCincinnati Bengals, whose first playoff game in 15 years had Paul Brown Stadiumshaking. Now he was just another backseat driver on the interstate, headinghome to suburban Hamilton County, listening to the Cincinnati radio announcerstalking about his injury, about the grand opportunity wiped out in an instantfor him and the Bengals. "We had it all laid out in front of us,"Palmer says. "The Super Bowl could have been ours. I felt like I haddeserted them."
By the timePalmer hobbled through his front door, the Bengals, who had surged to a 17-7lead behind backup Jon Kitna, were being pummeled. As he sat on the living roomcouch watching the final minutes of Pittsburgh's 31-17 victory, Palmer felt hewas already wasting time. Earlier, lying on a table in the training room, he'dcried as he understood the magnitude of his injury. But now, as Cincinnati'ssports fans mourned their loss, Palmer was already thinking about hiscomeback.
Bengals coachMarvin Lewis and his wife, Peggy, drove straight from the stadium to Palmer'shouse after the game. They chatted at the front door with Kitna, who'd made abrief visit, before Palmer appeared--on crutches, in his boxers. He'd taken offhis sweats to ice his knee and now stood there, awkwardly, making small talkwith the coach's wife. When she left the room, Lewis asked Palmer how he wasfeeling. Palmer asked for an airplane. "I want to fly somewhere rightnow," Palmer said. "Let's do the surgery and get going."
Over the pastfour months, Palmer's will, seemingly as strong as his right arm, has been putto the test. The classically gifted quarterback (who waited two days beforehaving surgery, in Houston, on Jan. 10) is in week 20 of a grueling but, sofar, unusually smooth rehab program. Since the operation to repair his tornleft anterior cruciate ligament, shredded medial collateral ligament,dislocated kneecap, and cartilage and tissue damage, Palmer's goal has been toplay in Cincinnati's 2006 season opener, against the Chiefs in Kansas City onSept. 10. "That's what keeps me going," he says, mindful that thenormal range of recovery from such injuries is eight to 12 months. "I knowthat if I take a couple of weeks off I'm not going to be ready to playSeptember 10."
Palmer beganjogging last week and may participate in some noncontact drills at a minicampnext month. Bengals trainer Paul Sparling says Palmer's drive and focus havemade him "an ideal patient" for an arduous rehab. "That's soCarson," says Kitna, who signed a free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions inMarch. "He never gets depressed, and he doesn't have bad days."
Palmer has neversaid, Why me? But he has spent a great deal of time wondering, Why them?
Palmer walksthrough the Bengals' training room on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-April. Havingjust taken the usual ribbing from flamboyant wideout Chad Johnson (whoaddresses him as "Snowflake," an out-of-thin-air nickname that makesPalmer wince), the 6'5" quarterback points to a pair of oversized,half-inflated rubber balls. "These help me with my balance," hesays.
He stops.Something in the corner of the room catches his attention. It's a televisionmounted on the wall, the 20-inch set on which Palmer watched the Bengals andthe Steelers after he was carted off the field. He remembers shivering andclutching his knee that day, lying sideways, facing away from the TV, having tostrain his neck to see what was happening on the screen, which only added tohis anguish.
Now this: The TVis airing a commercial for SI's special issue commemorating the Steelers' SuperBowl championship--featuring highlights of Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, TroyPolamalu and, oh, yes, Jerome Bettis in all his storybook splendor. Palmergroans. "That stuff drives me insane," he says. "They need to cutthat out."
Even after atough playoff defeat, NFL players often root for the team that eliminated them.Palmer looked forward only to the Steelers' demise, and when it failed to come,week after excruciating week, his frustration increased. The 2002 HeismanTrophy winner flashed back to his days at USC, when the Trojans had lost eightconsecutive games to UCLA and were greeted across L.A. with billboards readingeight straight, ain't it great? To him, Pittsburgh's One for the Thumb rallyingcry became the equivalent, or worse, a middle-finger salute. "I hatethem," Palmer says of the Steelers. "I hate them even more than I hateUCLA. Yeah, it's because I'm jealous and I want what they have. I guess I'mjust not that evolved."
Palmer believesthat Pittsburgh came into Cincinnati in January and stole the glory that wasrightfully his. The AFC North rivals split their regular-season series in 2005,each winning on the other's turf. Both finished 11-5, the Bengals taking theNorth on the strength of their division record and the Steelers sneaking intothe playoffs as a wild card to set up the rubber match.
On the Bengals'second play from scrimmage, with the ball on their own 12-yard line, Palmerconfidently called the play sent in from offensive coordinator BobBratkowski--999 Seam, which would send three receivers and the tight endrunning vertical patterns. The quarterback was expecting a Cover Two defense,with the two corners up and the two safeties in deep protection; instead, theSteelers lined up in Quarters, with four defensive backs spread evenly acrossthe field. To the right, wide receiver Chris Henry was opposite veteranSteelers cornerback Deshea Townsend. Too good to be true, Palmer thought as hestood over center. Henry can run by any corner--and certainly by this guy.
Even as the passleft his hand, Palmer knew it would be completed. He remembers seeing Henrycatch the ball and race down the sideline as 65,870 fans celebrated madly. Buthaving watched the replay at least 50 times, he knows this memory is anillusion. The hit on his knee came at least a second before Henry made thecatch.
As Palmerreleased the ball, Kimo von Oelhoffen, the Steelers' 300-plus-pound defensiveend, rolled and drove his shoulder into Palmer's left leg. The crowd was stillroaring as Palmer twisted awkwardly and crumpled to the turf on his ownfive-yard line. Soon all eyes turned from Henry back to Palmer, and the stadiumfell silent as the Bengals' trainers rushed onto the field.
Shaelyn saw itall. She bolted from her luxury box to the locker room. When she got to Carson,he was despondent. He'd wept once before in front of her, but nothing likethis. "I thought it was because he was in so much pain," Shaelyn says,"but it wasn't. It was the emotion."
A team doctorexamined the knee and told Carson that both the ACL and the MCL were torn. Toconfirm the diagnosis, Palmer was sent to the special medical facilityunderneath Paul Brown Stadium and into the claustrophobic loneliness of an MRItube. He was given a pair of headphones and allowed to listen to the game. Theannouncers kept saying they weren't sure if he'd return. That drove him crazy:They should know how badly I'm hurt.
His teammatesknew, and several of them jawed at Von Oelhoffen, believing his hit had beendirty. Yet Palmer insists he's not mad at the lineman (who's now with the NewYork Jets). "You get hit in weird positions all the time playingquarterback," Palmer says. "In the end I felt very fortunate to haveplayed as long as I did and avoided surgery to that point. It's just part ofthe game. It's part of life."
The problem was,Palmer's life kept getting worse over the next few weeks, as the Steelersscored improbable road victories at Indianapolis and Denver and beat theSeattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Each weekend he would sit on his couch inNewport Beach, Calif., crutches at his side, and talk to Kitna by phone beforethe game, the quarterbacks reassuring each other that Pittsburgh's eliminationwas imminent. Inevitably, Palmer would be back on with Kitna a few hours later,screaming, "Can you believe this?"
When Palmervented to Lewis, the coach told him it was a good lesson for the Bengals to seeanother AFC North team raise its level of play. So, says Palmer, "I decidedto take that approach. About five minutes into the Super Bowl, I thought, Youknow what? This approach sucks."
Palmer was alsoangered by the doubts being raised regarding his future. He bristled when, twodays after the operation, the surgeon who'd repaired his knee, Dr. LonniePaulos, told the Associated Press that the injury was "devastating andpotentially career-ending," though Paulos added that he was optimisticabout a recovery. When Palmer emerged from a rehab session at hisphysical-therapy center in Anaheim, his voice mail was loaded with messagesfrom concerned parties, including Lewis. Palmer assured his coach that he'dreceived an upbeat prognosis, and Paulos later clarified his comments in astatement released by the Bengals.
Stuck on crutchesfor eight weeks and deprived of his two favorite off-season activities, golfand pickup basketball, Palmer seethed. "I was so bored that I watched thewhole [NFL] combine on TV," he says. "At one point [former Saints andColts coach Jim] Mora was talking about my injury and said something like, 'Hedefinitely won't be back for the first game, and when he comes back he won't beplaying as well as he did before, and the team will suffer.'" Palmer feltlike screaming back at the TV. "That pissed me off," he says. "Whois this guy? Isn't this the guy who said, 'Playoffs? Playoffs?' He doesn't knowme, and he doesn't know how hard I'm going to work. I've used that as fuel--Ikeep thinking of all the naysayers who don't believe I'll make it back. I'mgoing to prove them wrong."
The early stagesof rehab from reconstructive knee surgery are monotonous and painful. At thatpoint the therapy involves rebuilding the atrophied muscles, particularly thequadriceps, and regaining a full range of motion. For the first two monthsafter his surgery, Palmer says, "I'd sit at the end of a table for twohours a day, doing little hip raises. My therapist would push, and I'd pushback." In mid-March, nine weeks after the operation, in which, among otherrepairs, his ACL was replaced by that of a cadaver, Palmer's range of motion inhis left knee was stuck at 65 degrees. A therapist told him, "If we don'tget past this point soon, we'll have you hang your leg off a table and bitedown on a rag, and we'll drain the liquid and force it to 90 degrees."Palmer met the goal on his own.
Shortlythereafter he returned to Cincinnati to continue his rehab at the Bengals'facility, where the team's trainers were anxiously waiting to evaluate hisprogress. "The first day I got back here," Palmer says, "they put arope ladder on the ground and had me jog through it to test my mobility. Whenthe trainers saw what I could do, they were blown away. They said, 'I can'tbelieve you're doing this already.' I kept expecting to come in and be dreadingit. I kept expecting so many uphill battles. But so far there have been nosetbacks."
Palmer typicallyarrives at the facility at 8 a.m. He begins by jogging neck deep in a smallpool equipped with a treadmill, which allows him to run while taking most ofhis body weight off his knee. Jacuzzi jets provide resistance, and underwatercameras let Bengals trainers monitor his gait. After a half hour in the poolPalmer rides a stationary bike, then begins a long series of balancing andagility drills--making swift motions with elastic bands tethered to his waist,jumping over boxes and performing a series of shuttles and shuffles. By latemorning he moves on to an elaborate two-hour weightlifting routine, then walksinto a darkened meeting room and watches game film.
"Right nowhe's right where you'd like him to be to have a chance to be ready for thestart of the season," says Sparling. "So it's not an unrealistic goal.But very few rehabs ever go straight up, without setbacks, and it's still tooearly to predict when he'll be all the way back."
On occasionPalmer will take the field at Paul Brown Stadium and throw to Johnson and otherteammates. The sight of their quarterback delivering the tight spirals he'sbeen known for since his arrival in Cincinnati is a major morale boost for therest of the Bengals. "Ain't nothing wrong with his arm," saysJohnson.
For Palmer toreturn for the opener, Lewis says, he'll have to play in at least two preseasongames. The coach was skeptical at first but said in early April, "Based onwhat I've seen him do--taking drops and throwing--I don't have much doubt thathe'll be ready."
Given palmer'simportance to the franchise--roughly the same as Howard Stern's to SiriusSatellite Radio--the question must be asked: Why the rush?
"Man, he'slooking pretty good," says Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, "butyou wonder--even if he's cleared medically, do you sit him the first fourgames, then have him come back after the bye week? That's just being smartabout it. You don't want to risk his whole career for one season."
Palmer, afterall, has been an anomaly, the rare No. 1 draft pick in this era whose earlyperformance has exceeded his hype. As a rookie he didn't play a snap whileKitna, in Lewis's first season as coach, led the Bengals to an 8-8 record,their best since 1990. The following spring Lewis, citing Palmer's potential,announced he'd be the starter in 2004. There were plenty of doubters, but Kitnawasn't among them. "When Carson was coming out of college," Kitna says,"you'd hear people say, 'He's not the brightest guy. It's going to take himthree to four years before he understands an NFL system.' But Carson wasgetting it about halfway through '04, and what he did last year was ahead ofwhat Peyton Manning did at the same stage of his career."
The breakthroughcame, appropriately, during a Nov. 20 shootout between Palmer and Manning inCincinnati, one of the more entertaining games of the 2005 season. The Bengalsquarterback threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, and his Colts counterpartfinished with 365 passing yards and three touchdown passes in a 45-37 Indyvictory. Says Kitna, "About halfway through that game we basically stoppedhuddling. The next day Bob Bratkowski said, 'It's time to just turn it over toCarson. We're a better offense that way.' From then on Carson would show upevery Wednesday and know everything a defense was trying to do to us and how toattack it."
Noting that theBengals run a version of the Colts' no-huddle attack, Manning says, "Carsongets up to the line, surveys the defense and makes calls off of that. Anytime aquarterback can do that it means he's earned the trust of his offensivecoordinator and head coach, which is the ultimate goal. You can tell Carson hasearned that trust in a short period of time."
It helps, ofcourse, that Palmer can throw any pass with zip and accuracy and is mobileenough to buy time in the pocket. "From watching film, I didn't know hisarm was as strong as it was, but then he put one 65 yards in the air andchanged my mind," says Darren Sharper, the Minnesota Vikings' All-Pro freesafety, who saw Palmer carve up his team for 337 yards and three TDs in a 38-7Bengals win last September. "He has more athletic ability than PeytonManning, and he's a very cerebral quarterback."
Last year Palmercompleted 345 of 509 passes (67.8%) for 3,836 yards, with 32 touchdowns and 12interceptions. His 101.1 passer rating was second only to Manning's, and hefinished fifth in the league's MVP voting. With Chad Johnson (1,432 receivingyards) and halfback Rudi Johnson (1,458 rushing yards) signed to long-termdeals, Palmer is poised to dominate opposing defenders for years to come.
"A lot ofquarterbacks look off the safety in the middle of the field," TennesseeTitans coach Jeff Fisher says. "Palmer is looking off two linebackers andcoming back to a spot, and he'll throw the ball into a window well before thereceiver gets there. That's the mark of a confident player."
Palmer'sconfidence, however, has its limits. "I feel like I'm a perfectionist,"he says, "but I don't feel superior. To be good at this position you needto find that edge--with Michael Vick, it's his running ability; with BrettFavre, it's his arm; with Peyton, it's his knowledge. I'm not good enough atany one thing to rely on it for my edge, so I come back to fundamentals. Myniche needs to be that I'm always on balance, always in the right place in thepocket, and I always release the ball at the right time."
Sitting in a teammeeting room at the Bengals' facility after a long day of rehab, Carson Palmerknocks on wood. Noting that his recovery has gone about as well as anyone couldhave hoped, he bangs his knuckles several times on the oak table in front ofhim. Resolute though he may be, Palmer knows he must fight through theinevitable barriers that confront every athlete returning from serious injury.The ride home in January is never far from his mind.
What will happenthe next time he has to stand in the pocket and throw 999 Seam with the passrush closing in around him? "In order to throw deep you have to step up andfollow through, and I hope [the injury] won't be in my head when I get back outon the field," he says. "That's part of the healing process--having theconfidence that my leg can withstand hits, that I can stand in the pocket andthrow the ball without fear."
On theseunglamorous spring afternoons, Palmer sits at his locker and stares at a pocketschedule listing the Bengals' 2006 opponents. He envisions each matchup until,inevitably, his eyes work down to the final game on the list: Dec. 31 versusPittsburgh, 1 p.m., Paul Brown Stadium. "That's the one I keep hoping willbe for all the marbles," he says, now picking up a football from a nearbychair and flipping it toward the ceiling. He catches it and repeats, catchesand repeats, a look of calm on his face, until one final abrupt catch."When it's hard to stay focused on rehab," he says, clutching thefootball tightly with both hands, "I just keep thinking about that game. Ican't wait."