Carson Palmer will never forget that long ride home, his iced-up knee not so much in pain but numb, like the rest of him. He was lying on his side, sprawled across the backseat 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 lights were sparkling (exploding is the way he remembers them) as the crowd noise rose and fell, and he could see vendors in the parking lots still hawking jerseys with his number 9 on them. The sensations were as immediate as the twin pops he felt in his left knee upon releasing his first and only pass of the day, a glorious 66-yard completion that momentarily filled the south Ohio sky with unlimited promise.
It was all so sudden, so surreal: a quarterback zooming away from his destiny, as if he were Warren Beatty's Joe Pendleton in Heaven Can Wait. Having just turned 26 and been rewarded with a whopper of a birthday present -- a nine-year, $118 million contract from an organization once stingier than Wal-Mart -- Palmer now had to confront his football mortality on the very day 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 of displacement and, though it made no rational sense, dishonor.
Palmer was thinking of his teammates still out there battling the Pittsburgh Steelers. Less than two hours earlier he had been the envied leader of the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals, whose first playoff game in 15 years had Paul Brown Stadium shaking. Now he was just another backseat driver on the interstate, heading home to suburban Hamilton County, listening to the Cincinnati radio announcers talking about his injury, about the grand opportunity wiped out in an instant for 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 had deserted them."
By the time Palmer hobbled through his front door, the Bengals, who had surged to a 17-7 lead behind backup Jon Kitna, were being pummeled. As he sat on the living room couch watching the final minutes of Pittsburgh's 31-17 victory, Palmer felt he was already wasting time. Earlier, lying on a table in the training room, he'd cried as he understood the magnitude of his injury. But now, as Cincinnati's sports fans mourned their loss, Palmer was already thinking about his comeback.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and his wife, Peggy, drove straight from the stadium to Palmer's house after the game. They chatted at the front door with Kitna, who'd made a brief visit, before Palmer appeared -- on crutches, in his boxers. He'd taken off his sweats to ice his knee and now stood there, awkwardly, making small talk with the coach's wife. When she left the room, Lewis asked Palmer how he was feeling. Palmer asked for an airplane. "I want to fly somewhere right now," Palmer said. "Let's do the surgery and get going."
Over the past four months, Palmer's will, seemingly as strong as his right arm, has been put to the test. The classically gifted quarterback (who waited two days before having surgery, in Houston, on Jan. 10) is in week 20 of a grueling but, so far, unusually smooth rehab program. Since the operation to repair his torn left anterior cruciate ligament, shredded medial collateral ligament, dislocated kneecap, and cartilage and tissue damage, Palmer's goal has been to play in Cincinnati's 2006 season opener, against the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sept. 10. "That's what keeps me going," he says, mindful that the normal range of recovery from such injuries is eight to 12 months. "I know that if I take a couple of weeks off I'm not going to be ready to play September 10."
Palmer began jogging last week and may participate in some noncontact drills at a minicamp next month. Bengals trainer Paul Sparling says Palmer's drive and focus have made him "an ideal patient" for an arduous rehab. "That's so Carson," says Kitna, who signed a free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions in March. "He never gets depressed, and he doesn't have bad days."
Palmer has never said, Why me? But he has spent a great deal of time wondering, Why them?
Palmer walks through the Bengals' training room on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-April. Having just taken the usual ribbing from flamboyant wideout Chad Johnson (who addresses him as "Snowflake," an out-of-thin-air nickname that makes Palmer wince), the 6'5" quarterback points to a pair of oversized, half-inflated rubber balls. "These help me with my balance," he says.
He stops. Something in the corner of the room catches his attention. It's a television mounted on the wall, the 20-inch set on which Palmer watched the Bengals and the Steelers after he was carted off the field. He remembers shivering and clutching his knee that day, lying sideways, facing away from the TV, having to strain his neck to see what was happening on the screen, which only added to his anguish.
Now this: The TV is airing a commercial for SI's special issue commemorating the Steelers' Super Bowl championship -- featuring highlights of Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and, oh, yes, Jerome Bettis in all his storybook splendor. Palmer groans. "That stuff drives me insane," he says. "They need to cut that out."
Even after a tough 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 Heisman Trophy winner flashed back to his days at USC, when the Trojans had lost eight consecutive games to UCLA and were greeted across L.A. with billboards reading eight straight, ain't it great? To him, Pittsburgh's One for the Thumb rallying cry became the equivalent, or worse, a middle-finger salute. "I hate them," Palmer says of the Steelers. "I hate them even more than I hate UCLA.
Yeah, it's because I'm jealous and I want what they have. I guess I'm just not that evolved."
Palmer believes that Pittsburgh came into Cincinnati in January and stole the glory that was rightfully 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 the North on the strength of their division record and the Steelers sneaking into the 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, Palmer confidently called the play sent in from offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski -- 999 Seam, which would send three receivers and the tight end running vertical patterns. The quarterback was expecting a Cover Two defense, with the two corners up and the two safeties in deep protection; instead, the Steelers lined up in Quarters, with four defensive backs spread evenly across the field. To the right, wide receiver Chris Henry was opposite veteran Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend. Too good to be true, Palmer thought as he stood over center. Henry can run by any corner -- and certainly by this guy.
Even as the pass left his hand, Palmer knew it would be completed. He remembers seeing Henry catch the ball and race down the sideline as 65,870 fans celebrated madly. But having watched the replay at least 50 times, he knows this memory is an illusion. The hit on his knee came at least a second before Henry made the catch.
As Palmer released the ball, Kimo von Oelhoffen, the Steelers' 300-plus-pound defensive end, rolled and drove his shoulder into Palmer's left leg. The crowd was still roaring as Palmer twisted awkwardly and crumpled to the turf on his own five-yard line. Soon all eyes turned from Henry back to Palmer, and the stadium fell silent as the Bengals' trainers rushed onto the field.
Shaelyn saw it all. 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 like this. "I thought it was because he was in so much pain," Shaelyn says, "but it wasn't. It was the emotion."
A team doctor examined the knee and told Carson that both the ACL and the MCL were torn. To confirm the diagnosis, Palmer was sent to the special medical facility underneath Paul Brown Stadium and into the claustrophobic loneliness of an MRI tube. He was given a pair of headphones and allowed to listen to the game. The announcers kept saying they weren't sure if he'd return. That drove him crazy: They should know how badly I'm hurt.
His teammates knew, and several of them jawed at Von Oelhoffen, believing his hit had been dirty. Yet Palmer insists he's not mad at the lineman (who's now with the New York Jets). "You get hit in weird positions all the time playing quarterback," Palmer says. "In the end I felt very fortunate to have played as long as I did and avoided surgery to that point. It's just part of the game. It's part of life."
The problem was, Palmer's life kept getting worse over the next few weeks, as the Steelers scored improbable road victories at Indianapolis and Denver and beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Each weekend he would sit on his couch in Newport Beach, Calif., crutches at his side, and talk to Kitna by phone before the game, the quarterbacks reassuring each other that Pittsburgh's elimination was imminent. Inevitably, Palmer would be back on with Kitna a few hours later, screaming, "Can you believe this?"
When Palmer vented to Lewis, the coach told him it was a good lesson for the Bengals to see another AFC North team raise its level of play. So, says Palmer, "I decided to take that approach. About five minutes into the Super Bowl, I thought, You know what? This approach sucks."
Palmer was also angered by the doubts being raised regarding his future. He bristled when, two days after the operation, the surgeon who'd repaired his knee, Dr. Lonnie Paulos, told the Associated Press that the injury was "devastating and potentially career-ending," though Paulos added that he was optimistic about a recovery. When Palmer emerged from a rehab session at his physical-therapy center in Anaheim, his voice mail was loaded with messages from concerned parties, including Lewis. Palmer assured his coach that he'd received an upbeat prognosis, and Paulos later clarified his comments in a statement released by the Bengals.
Stuck on crutches for eight weeks and deprived of his two favorite off-season activities, golf and pickup basketball, Palmer seethed. "I was so bored that I watched the whole [NFL] combine on TV," he says. "At one point [former Saints and Colts coach Jim] Mora was talking about my injury and said something like, 'He definitely won't be back for the first game, and when he comes back he won't be playing as well as he did before, and the team will suffer.'" Palmer felt like screaming back at the TV. "That pissed me off," he says. "Who is this guy? Isn't this the guy who said, 'Playoffs? Playoffs?' He doesn't know me, and he doesn't know how hard I'm going to work. I've used that as fuel -- I keep thinking of all the naysayers who don't believe I'll make it back. I'm going to prove them wrong."
The early stages of rehab from reconstructive knee surgery are monotonous and painful. At that point the therapy involves rebuilding the atrophied muscles, particularly the quadriceps, and regaining a full range of motion. For the first two months after his surgery, Palmer says, "I'd sit at the end of a table for two hours a day, doing little hip raises. My therapist would push, and I'd push back." In mid-March, nine weeks after the operation, in which, among other repairs, his ACL was replaced by that of a cadaver, Palmer's range of motion in his left knee was stuck at 65 degrees. A therapist told him, "If we don't get past this point soon, we'll have you hang your leg off a table and bite down on a rag, and we'll drain the liquid and force it to 90 degrees." Palmer met the goal on his own.
Shortly thereafter he returned to Cincinnati to continue his rehab at the Bengals' facility, where the team's trainers were anxiously waiting to evaluate his progress. "The first day I got back here," Palmer says, "they put a rope ladder on the ground and had me jog through it to test my mobility. When the trainers saw what I could do, they were blown away. They said, 'I can't believe you're doing this already.' I kept expecting to come in and be dreading it. I kept expecting so many uphill battles. But so far there have been no setbacks."
Palmer typically arrives at the facility at 8 a.m. He begins by jogging neck deep in a small pool equipped with a treadmill, which allows him to run while taking most of his body weight off his knee. Jacuzzi jets provide resistance, and underwater cameras let Bengals trainers monitor his gait. After a half hour in the pool Palmer rides a stationary bike, then begins a long series of balancing and agility drills -- making swift motions with elastic bands tethered to his waist, jumping over boxes and performing a series of shuttles and shuffles. By late morning he moves on to an elaborate two-hour weightlifting routine, then walks into a darkened meeting room and watches game film.
"Right now he's right where you'd like him to be to have a chance to be ready for the start 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 too early to predict when he'll be all the way back."
On occasion Palmer will take the field at Paul Brown Stadium and throw to Johnson and other teammates. The sight of their quarterback delivering the tight spirals he's been known for since his arrival in Cincinnati is a major morale boost for the rest of the Bengals. "Ain't nothing wrong with his arm," says Johnson.
For Palmer to return for the opener, Lewis says, he'll have to play in at least two preseason games. The coach was skeptical at first but said in early April, "Based on what I've seen him do -- taking drops and throwing -- I don't have much doubt that he'll be ready."
Given Palmer's importance to the franchise -- roughly the same as Howard Stern's to Sirius Satellite Radio -- the question must be asked: Why the rush?
"Man, he's looking pretty good," says Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, "but you wonder -- even if he's cleared medically, do you sit him the first four games, then have him come back after the bye week? That's just being smart about it. You don't want to risk his whole career for one season."
Palmer, after all, has been an anomaly, the rare No. 1 draft pick in this era whose early performance has exceeded his hype. As a rookie he didn't play a snap while Kitna, 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 Kitna wasn'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 him three to four years before he understands an NFL system.' But Carson was getting it about halfway through '04, and what he did last year was ahead of what Peyton Manning did at the same stage of his career."
The breakthrough came, appropriately, during a Nov. 20 shootout between Palmer and Manning in Cincinnati, one of the more entertaining games of the 2005 season. The Bengals quarterback threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, and his Colts counterpart finished with 365 passing yards and three touchdown passes in a 45-37 Indy victory. Says Kitna, "About halfway through that game we basically stopped huddling. The next day Bob Bratkowski said, 'It's time to just turn it over to Carson. We're a better offense that way.' From then on Carson would show up every Wednesday and know everything a defense was trying to do to us and how to attack it."
Noting that the Bengals run a version of the Colts' no-huddle attack, Manning says, "Carson gets up to the line, surveys the defense and makes calls off of that. Anytime a quarterback can do that it means he's earned the trust of his offensive coordinator and head coach, which is the ultimate goal. You can tell Carson has earned that trust in a short period of time."
It helps, of course, that Palmer can throw any pass with zip and accuracy and is mobile enough to buy time in the pocket. "From watching film, I didn't know his arm was as strong as it was, but then he put one 65 yards in the air and changed my mind," says Darren Sharper, the Minnesota Vikings' All-Pro free safety, who saw Palmer carve up his team for 337 yards and three TDs in a 38-7 Bengals win last September. "He has more athletic ability than Peyton Manning, and he's a very cerebral quarterback."
Last year Palmer completed 345 of 509 passes (67.8%) for 3,836 yards, with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His 101.1 passer rating was second only to Manning's, and he finished fifth in the league's MVP voting. With Chad Johnson (1,432 receiving yards) and halfback Rudi Johnson (1,458 rushing yards) signed to long-term deals, Palmer is poised to dominate opposing defenders for years to come.
"A lot of quarterbacks look off the safety in the middle of the field," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "Palmer is looking off two linebackers and coming back to a spot, and he'll throw the ball into a window well before the receiver gets there. That's the mark of a confident player."
Palmer's confidence, 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 need to find that edge -- with Michael Vick, it's his running ability; with Brett Favre, it's his arm; with Peyton, it's his knowledge. I'm not good enough at any one thing to rely on it for my edge, so I come back to fundamentals. My niche needs to be that I'm always on balance, always in the right place in the pocket, and I always release the ball at the right time."
Sitting in a team meeting room at the Bengals' facility after a long day of rehab, Carson Palmer knocks on wood. Noting that his recovery has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped, he bangs his knuckles several times on the oak table in front of him. Resolute though he may be, Palmer knows he must fight through the inevitable barriers that confront every athlete returning from serious injury. The ride home in January is never far from his mind.
What will happen the next time he has to stand in the pocket and throw 999 Seam with the pass rush closing in around him? "In order to throw deep you have to step up and follow through, and I hope [the injury] won't be in my head when I get back out on the field," he says. "That's part of the healing process -- having the confidence that my leg can withstand hits, that I can stand in the pocket and throw the ball without fear."
On these unglamorous spring afternoons, Palmer sits at his locker and stares at a pocket schedule listing the Bengals' 2006 opponents. He envisions each matchup until, inevitably, his eyes work down to the final game on the list: Dec. 31 versus Pittsburgh, 1 p.m., Paul Brown Stadium. "That's the one I keep hoping will be for all the marbles," he says, now picking up a football from a nearby chair and flipping it toward the ceiling. He catches it and repeats, catches and 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 the football tightly with both hands, "I just keep thinking about that game. I can't wait