Caution flag: Bengals' Palmer not lock yet for opener

Updated: August 7, 2006, 8:40 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Despite all of the optimistic rhetoric, and the fact Carson Palmer has suffered no significant setbacks in his rehabilitation from a severe right knee injury, there are no guarantees yet that he will be in the lineup when the Cincinnati Bengals open the regular season at Kansas City on Sept. 10.

Quarterback
Cincinnati Bengals

Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
509 345 3731 32 12 101.1

The odds still favor Palmer but, as the Bengals prepare to begin the second week of training camp, no one seems capable yet of quantifying the possibilities.

Because, frankly, no one knows.

"I'm still not completely healthy," Palmer allowed after the team's Friday night camp scrimmage. "I'm still not back as far as timing and rhythm are concerned. The more reps I get, the better I feel. I need to be more athletic in the pocket and get back to the technique I've always had an always relied on. It will take time, but I'll get there."

One of the league's fastest emerging stars -- and a most valuable player candidate in 2005 when he finished second to Peyton Manning of Indianapolis in the league passing derby and registered an impresive 101.1 efficiency rating, while leading the NFL with 32 touchdown passes - Palmer suffered two torn ligaments in his left knee and a dislocated kneecap in a Jan. 8 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the ensuing seven months, the grueling rehabilitative pace set by the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner and top overall selection in the '03 draft has been documented in magazine feature articles. There have been suggestions that Palmer, 26, is remarkably ahead of schedule in recovering from the kind of injury which can take 9-12 months to rehabilitate. And the widespread hints that he would be able to start in the regular-season opener have been so broad that his readiness for the meeting with the Chiefs, which would come on the eight-month anniversary of the surgery to repair his knee, has been taken for granted in some quarters.

Notable, however, is that neither Palmer nor coach Marvin Lewis have issued any public pronouncements about the opening game. Privately, the Bengals' brass is cautiously optimistic about Palmer's chances for being ready to go from the outset of the season, but caution is clearly the operative mindset.

Said Palmer last week: "It's unrealistic to say that I'm going to start against the Chiefs. It's realistic to say that I might start against the Chiefs. That's my goal. We'll just see how it works out."

The reality might come into better focus this week. Cincinnati coaches spent part of this weekend closely reviewing the status of Palmer's rehabilitation in the first week of training camp and might be prepared to ramp up his workload. Unlike the last two summers, when Palmer logged 80-90 percent of the snaps during training camp, he has taken only about 40 percent so far this year.

Palmer participated in the Friday scrimmage, completing four of nine passes for 59 yards, and conceding that he struggled at times to knock off some of the rust that developed in the spring, when he wasn't on the field as much as he had been in the past. The former Southern California star, who sported a brace on his left knee in the scrimmage, did not take part in the team's annual training camp "Mock Game" on Saturday.

In that session, journeyman Anthony Wright, signed as an unrestricted free agent in the spring, threw for nearly 300 yards and took a huge step toward winning the primary backup job and the right to start in the regular-season opener if Palmer isn't ready. Of course, Palmer still has five weeks to convince himself and the Cincinnati organization that he is fully recovered and ready to resume his role as the starter.

But the more practical evaluation period, in terms of playing time in the preseason, likely will be much more compressed. There is virtually no chance that Palmer will play in the Aug. 13 preseason opener against Washington. In fact, it's more likely that Palmer will not get on the field until Aug. 28, the third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.

"I'm going to do whatever I get cleared to do," Palmer said. "If the doctors think I need more [snaps] and give me more [snaps], I'll do it. If they want me to back off and they say I need more rest, I'll do it. I'm just going to do what they say."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.