Worker's Compensation

Times Staff Writer

There were explosive drop-backs, sprint rollouts, cleat-twisting cuts to the left and right. Quarterback Carson Palmer muscled his way through them all, turning a Manhattan Beach park into the latest stop on his road to recovery.

As a group of mothers watched their kids play on a nearby climbing structure -- unaware that a compelling NFL comeback was being worked on in their midst -- the former USC Heisman Trophy winner tested the limits of his surgically reconstructed left knee.

Palmer didn't wince during the recent workout. But his dad did as he observed from a few yards away.

"It scared me to death to watch him," Bill Palmer said. "It was so aggressive. If you watched him, you wouldn't know anything was wrong."

Six months ago something went very wrong, leaving the Cincinnati Bengals' leader writhing on the turf at Paul Brown Stadium. He was injured on the second play from scrimmage of a wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh. Palmer dropped back and heaved a long pass, absorbing a hit just as he released the ball. He was hit low by 299-pound Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, who later explained he accidentally rolled into Palmer's knee.

"It was a sick feeling for me because I knew right when it happened what was at stake, and I knew I was probably done for that game," said Palmer, whose Pro Bowl season had helped power the Bengals to their first postseason appearance in 15 years. "It was an eerie, sickening feeling. It was very surreal."

As NFL camps open over the next week or so -- Cincinnati begins training in Georgetown, Ky., next Saturday -- Palmer isn't the only young quarterback on the mend from a serious or even career-threatening injury. New Orleans' Drew Brees suffered a dislocated throwing shoulder while playing in San Diego's finale last season. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle accident on June 12. The New York Jets' Chad Pennington had rotator cuff surgery on his throwing shoulder for the second straight year. And Miami's Daunte Culpepper, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, is coming back from three torn ligaments in his right knee, an injury that ended his 2005 season in October.

Palmer suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, a dislocated kneecap, and cartilage and tissue damage.

Two days after surgery, the doctor who performed the procedure told the Associated Press that the injury was "devastating and potentially career-ending." That caused an uproar in Cincinnati, where Palmer had recently signed a nine-year, $118-million contract, and the doctor clarified -- and softened -- his comments in a news release distributed by the team.

Now, as Palmer glides along in what has been a remarkably smooth recovery, there's a question on the lips of every Bengals fan: When will he be back? He looked so sharp running seven-on-seven drills at a recent mini-camp that there is speculation he could return during the first month of the regular season. But Palmer isn't making promises.

"It's going to take a while," he said. "I'm still working on my balance and the strength in my knee and all that. So it's going to take some time. But I'm happy with where I am now. I'm where I should be."

Palmer's rehabilitation has been a full-time job and then some. His routine includes running on an underwater treadmill, riding a stationary bike, lifting weights, balance and agility drills, and, of course, throwing practice. In his downtime, he studies game footage.

"I'm very greedy and I want to be able to do everything now," he said. "I want to be 100%, and I wanted to be 100% four months ago.

"Emotionally, that's been the main thing for me, just trying to be patient and realize that this is going to take some time. My knee needs time to get healthy."

The clock is ticking, and Palmer -- who spends about nine months a year in Cincinnati and the rest in Southern California -- need only switch on the TV or radio to be reminded of that. What is seen and heard frustrates his father.

"What worries me is when I hear all those preseason prognosticators say the whole future of how the Bengals do depends on when Carson comes back," Bill Palmer said. "Wait a minute! This is football. This is a team game. ... That's a pressure that I don't think is justified."

However, Palmer's was no small contribution last season. He set Bengals records with 32 touchdown passes and 345 completions, and his 101.1 passer rating was second only to Peyton Manning's 104.1.

In May, Palmer was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated running chest-deep in a rehabilitation pool. He told the magazine that, for the first two months after surgery, he'd sit at the end of a table for two hours a day doing little hip raises, pushing up as the therapist pushed down. Nine weeks after an operation that included replacing his ACL with that of a cadaver, the range of motion in his knee was stuck at 65 degrees.

According to the magazine, his 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 got there on his own.

That Palmer has come so far so fast is impressive, said Dr. Neal ElAttrache, a knee expert who spoke in generalities on the subject because he is not working with the Bengals quarterback.

Although a knee can be nursed back to full strength, it can take much longer for the patient's full confidence in that knee to return.

"You can't talk somebody into that," said ElAttrache, director of the sports medicine fellowship at the Kerlan-Jobe clinic in Los Angeles. "They have to prove to themselves they can do it without thinking about their knee."

A torn ACL is the 17th-most common NFL injury but the one associated with the most game time lost. ElAttrache cited a recent NFL-funded study that showed players recovering from that injury usually experience a statistical dip in their first season back.

But Palmer says what he might lose in early-season playing time, he has gained in perspective:

"If there's one thing I picked up from last year it's to count your blessings. You don't realize how lucky you are to stay healthy throughout a whole season, and how fortunate you are with how many times you get hit and knocked around.

"I just realized that it all can be taken away in two seconds, from the snap of the ball to the end of the play."

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