CINCINNATI -- A blue morning sky hovered above Paul Brown Stadium, the kind Carson Palmer used to see routinely when he was growing up in southern California. He was propped on a chair on the same sideline where he stands, with the rest of his teammates, when the Cincinnati Bengals -- don't forget, the AFC North Division champion Bengals -- are playing a home game.
It is Wednesday morning and the most talented and most popular quarterback to play for the Bengals is talking to Boomer Esiason, who might have been the most talented and most popular quarterback to play for the Bengals until Palmer came along. Esiason, a football analyst for CBS Sports, is interviewing Palmer, as he has several times during the offseason, for a piece the network will air during the regular season, chronicling the rehabilitation and return of the Bengals quarterback from a gruesome knee injury sustained in an American Football Conference wild-card playoff game against the Steelers, the team he says he hates.
Palmer's knee is a daily subject in Cincinnati, much the same way Ben Roethlisberger and his return from a motorcycle accident was the topic du jour in Pittsburgh. Unlike Roethlisberger, though, who already has played in a preseason game, Palmer is still waiting to take a snap in a football game. He has said he will be ready to play in the Sept. 10 season opener against Kansas City, and he will. He might even play in next week's preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, almost for certain in the preseason finale in Indianapolis, against the only quarterback who had a better passer rating in 2005, Peyton Manning.
Until he returns, and even then, Palmer's rehabilitation from knee surgery will be monitored, scrutinized and discussed like a tax hike in the Queen City.
"I'm right where I need to be," Palmer said. "We set that Sept. 10 game as being ready for that, and, hopefully, being ready for this Monday night game (Aug. 28) against Green Bay. I'm hoping so. I'm going to try."
That Palmer will be ready for the season opener in Kansas City isn't even a matter of debate, not even an ambitious timetable for a player with an injury that typically takes 12-16 months to return to 100 percent. "Oh, yeah," says his head coach, Marvin Lewis, a former Steelers assistant who has never had a losing record in three seasons with the Bengals. "Unless we have some kind of setback. He's way ahead of where we hoped he would be. The things he did in June, we hoped he would be doing now."
All of which means that on Sept. 24, when the Bengals return to Heinz Field to play the team that ended their season, and nearly jeopardized their quarterback's career, Palmer should be playing quarterback when not many thought he would even be in uniform in the days after defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into his knee at Paul Brown Stadium. To be sure, von Oelhoffen will be gone, having signed with the New York Jets in free agency.
But that won't ease the way Palmer feels about the Steelers.
"We all hate Pittsburgh," Palmer said.
Palmer's rehabilitation is more than just a fascination in Cincinnati. His stature as one of the league's marquee quarterbacks -- his 32 touchdowns were a Bengals record and his 101.1 passer rating was second only to Manning last season -- has made Palmer a national headline.
During the offseason, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, sitting in a hydrotherapy pool, with the words, "The Rehab of Carson Palmer," superimposed over the picture. In the article, Palmer talked about the emotion he felt in the minutes after the injury and the "hate" he had for the Steelers, the team that went on to win the Super Bowl.
Not much has changed in the months since Palmer expressed his feelings for the Steelers.
"It's nothing against the city, the fans or the individual players," Palmer said, sitting on a golf cart inside Paul Brown Stadium that was parked in the same runway in which he was carted off the field seven months ago. "It's just the team, that's our rival. They are the guys that are where we want to be. When you play at USC, you hate UCLA. You don't hate the strong safety, you don't hate the left outside linebacker, but it's just something that develops.
"Until you're part of that rivalry, like a fan, like a crazy rabid Steelers fan or a crazy Bengals fan, when you have a love for a team like our fans love our team, like their fans love their team, and they're where you want to be and they have want you want to have, then you get an aggressiveness toward them. It's nothing individually."
Palmer reminded that one of his closest friends is Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, with whom he shared a house when they were teammates at USC.
"Troy is one of my favorite people in the world. It's nothing like him or them individually. I like Ben [Roethlisberger] a lot; it's nothing to do with Ben. It's just that the rivalry is so intense. I'm not sure how it is on their side of the ball because they've been whupping our butts for years and we've been getting our butts whupped by them for years.
"They're on top, they're on top of the world, so it just intensifies. They're in a tough position because, now every time they step on the field, they're going to get the other team's best shot. They know that. They're going to get our best shot. We're going to give everything we got to beat them, and it's going to be different because they're the best team in football coming back. It just makes it fun."
Said Lewis, a McDonald native: "Fortunately or unfortunately, we're in the business of putting them out of business."
It has been little more than seven months since Palmer, who led the NFL in completion percentage (67.8) and led the Bengals to their first division championship in 15 years, lay on the turf at Paul Brown Stadium, not very far from the same spot in which he was being interviewed by Esiason. His season was over, his knee was a medical mess. He had been hit low, though not late or illegally, by von Oelhoffen, who, in the immediate aftermath of what happened to Palmer, came to be known in these parts as Lee Harvey von Oelhoffen.
The date was Jan. 8, 2006, and the Bengals, who had beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field just one month earlier, were trying to beat their division rival again, this time when it mattered more. But, on the second offensive play, after throwing a 66-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Henry, their quarterback was finished, just like that. And so was their season.
The hit by von Oelhoffen, the angle in which he crashed into Palmer's left leg, caused severe damage: A clean tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, a torn patellar tendon, and a dislocated kneecap. His knee was repaired with a tendon from a woman killed by a drunken driver, though Palmer did not know it at the time.
"Right when it happened, I knew what happened," Palmer said. "All I was thinking about was, I'm done, I'm not going to play this game. That's the first thing you think of when you feel pain.
"But the pain came from knowing we really felt we had a shot, and I really thought we had a shot at making a run. I knew right when it happened I wasn't going to be on the field for the rest of that postseason. I felt the pops. I heard the pops. And from stories I heard from buddies who had blown out their knee, you hear stories very similar to what I felt, what I heard. My first thing was, OK, it's over, it's done."
The scope of Palmer's injury was magnified -- and, some claim, exaggerated -- by his surgeon, Dr. Lonnie Paulos of Murray, Utah, who claimed after surgery the injury was "devastating and potentially career-ending." He later altered the prognosis in a statement released by the team.
"Carson didn't have a career-threatening injury, that's the thing that got overstated or taken out of context," Lewis said. "When we got the MRI report after the game, I actually got it after halftime, it was exactly the way it turned out. We had two worse knee injuries on our team last year. Carson's was a clean torn ACL and some trauma because of the side hit to the kneecap, and he's responded well to all of them."
After the surgery, Palmer embarked on an aggressive rehab schedule, all designed to get him ready for the season opener. Doctors told him his genetics enabled him to be where he is now -- on the precipice of returning to the Bengals as their full-time starter.
To be sure, Palmer has progressed slowly through training camp, beginning by taking 25 percent of the snaps the first week when the team trained in Georgetown, Ky., and now working up, by his estimation, to 70-75 percent of the snaps. Still, he did not play in Friday night's preseason game in Buffalo, but he is hoping to play in eight days against the Packers on national television.
"Over the last 10 days, I felt every day I've improved and gotten better with my technique, my reads, with just thinking about football and not thinking, OK, step through the drill, put your pressure on your left leg, don't worry about anyone in front of you," Palmer said. "I feel I've rapidly increased my awareness of what's going on around me instead of thinking about my knee, thinking about my technique.
"The mental part, that's all people want to talk about. They bring it up all the time. But I feel like I'm getting through that part and getting closer to just getting out there on the field and playing and making my reads and throwing the ball."
Palmer's return -- and who makes the decision about when he returns -- has created something of a stir in Cincinnati. Lewis said the decision rests with Palmer, while Palmer has told the local media the decision will be made by his head coach. Two weeks ago, Lewis said the team doctors told him Palmer was ready to play.
"Carson is a strong-minded guy," Lewis said the other day. "He makes up his mind."
Said Palmer: "I'm not going to cover anything up. I've got nothing to hide. I'm not going out there till I'm 100 percent. And I don't feel like I have to hide anything about that."
As he shifts his legs in the golf cart, Palmer looks at his left knee and rubs the scar.
He did not know it at the time, but Paulos used a donated Achilles tendon to repair some of the extensive damage in Palmer's knee. The tendon was donated by Julie De Rossi, who was killed March, 17, 2004, in a crash with a drunken driver. De Rossi was event director of Motherland Entertainment in Houston.
Palmer found out months later when a sports business journal called his agent about the donation. Before he discovered the identity of the donor, Palmer said he jokingly told Paulos to use the tendon of "somebody really fast."
"It's amazing ... it blows your mind," Palmer said. "Modern science can take a part from somebody else's body and make it function in your body. Blows you away."
Such is the fascination with Carson Palmer.Tony Tribble, Associated Press
The knee brace on his left knee is a constant reminder to Carson Palmer of that January evening against the Steelers.
Carson Palmer: What was lost
The NFL passer rating leaders
104.1: Peyton Manning, Colts
101.1: Carson Palmer, Bengals
98.6: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
98.2: Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks