Backing off statements made over the weekend to a national broadcast crew, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Tuesday that the timetable for Carson Palmer to return to the field is up to his rehabilitating quarterback, and that the team's young star need not play in Friday's preseason game against the Buffalo Bill to prove himself ready for the Sept. 10 season opener at Kansas City.
"I can't get into [Palmer's] skin," Lewis said. "He has to decide. The doctors say he's ready to go [medically], it's just when he feels like he's ready to go, we unwrap him. It's up to him. There's nothing medically one way or another that's going to make a difference this week, next week or two weeks from now. Carson is doing the things we need him to do and when we're ready for him to play, and he feels he's ready to go 100 percent with it, he'll play."
It was reported during Sunday's nationally broadcast preseason game that Lewis had suggested the team needed to "fish or cut bait with Carson Palmer" this week. The inference was that Lewis wanted Palmer to play against the Bills as the next step in the fourth-year veteran quarterback's rehabilitation from surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments and ancillary damage to his left knee.
Lewis and Palmer clearly discussed the coach's remarks and are in agreement that the quarterback will make the final call about when he returns to the field.
Said Lewis: "It's over and it's in our past. It makes for better TV, I know that."
Lewis did indicate that if Palmer does not play in any of Cincinnati's four preseason games he will not start the regular-season opener. In that event, the starter would almost certainly be Anthony Wright, who has performed well in camp and in the preseason. The journeyman quarterback was signed this spring as a free agent and appears to have solidified his lock on the No. 2 job, over Doug Johnson.
It's all but a given that Palmer, who last week increased his workout to about 70-80 percent of the snaps with the first team, after working only 40 percent of the plays in the opening week of camp, will not play at Buffalo on Friday night. All along, Palmer has been pointing toward the Aug. 28 home game against Green Bay, the third preseason contest, as the target date for his return.
Palmer acknowledged early in camp that he needed more work to knock off some of the rust that he had accumulated this spring during his rehabilitation. The league's touchdown pass leader in 2005, Palmer has looked good at times in camp, struggled on other occasions, and has said that he needs to regain some of his mobility and ability to make plays outside the pocket.
After practice on Tuesday afternoon, Palmer remained in his cautionary mode, emphasizing that while he wants to play, he does not want to rush things and undo any of the progress he has made.
"The doctors say he's ready to go [medically], it's just when he feels like he's ready to go, we unwrap him. It's up to him. There's nothing medically one way or another that's going to make a difference this week, next week or two weeks from now. Carson is doing the things we need him to do and when we're ready for him to play, and he feels he's ready to go 100 percent with it, he'll play."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on Carson Palmer's return
"That's the last thing Marvin wants to do," Palmer said. "That's the last thing this organization wants to do. That's the last thing I want to do. This organization has invested a lot in me and they're not going to risk one preseason game in August for what is hopefully a 10- or 15-year career. It's a non-issue."
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 impressive 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 pace of rehabilitation 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.
Were Palmer to start in the regular-season opener, his return would come exactly eight months after the extensive surgery to his knee. By any standards, such a recovery would be deemed extraordinary.
"At some point," Lewis said, "you have to just take the leap of faith and do it, and that's what he's looking forward to doing when he's ready. Carson is so humble, to a fault almost. We know how he keeps things inward. It's just a matter of when he expresses that desire to me that he's ready, then we'll go through with it. Carson is right on track, or ahead of where we thought he would be. As he and I have discussed, we're going to continue with the things he's doing, and when he's doing them, despite all the rumors and [outside] influence."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.