Carson Comeback?

Posted: 11:30 p.m.

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Palmer

After reaching his second straight Pro Bowl this week, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is about to answer the question if one can win NFL Comeback Player of the Year without ever leaving.

A small sampling of the 50 voters for the Associated Press award said Thursday that Palmer is high on their list of possibilities, but it looks to be headed by Saints quarterback Drew Brees in balloting to be revealed Jan. 4.

"I would think Brees and Carson are One and One A," said Paul Attner, and Dan Pompei, his colleague at The Sporting News believes, "Carson has a chance to win it if people see Brees as an MVP candidate."

In just 347 days, Palmer has risen off the cart following the second snap of the Wild Card game and steered the Bengals to the brink of the playoffs again with stats comparable to his franchise-breaking season of 2005 and worthy of another Pro Bowl selection while overcoming reconstructive knee surgery.

Since the award began in 1998, no player has won the honor by himself after going to the Pro Bowl the previous year.

So where can he go to come back?

(Last year, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, felled by a stroke after going to the 2004 Pro Bowl, shared Comeback Player with Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.)

Which may hurt Palmer's chance to win the award he watched Jon Kitna win while Kitna backed up Palmer during his rookie year in 2003.

"I think most people look at that award as a surprise," Pompei said. "Last year Carson set the bar pretty high for himself. I think it's Drew Brees hands down. Two teams, the Chargers and Dolphins, didn't think he could play this year. A lot of people didn't think he'd be healthy enough to be the starter in New Orleans, and look what he's done."

Although not many believed him, head coach Marvin Lewis took out any Brees-like suspense by declaring immediately he expected Palmer ready for the opener.

After suffering a grotesque shoulder injury in his team's last game, Brees has led the Saints to the playoffs in leading the NFL in yards and racking up the second most touchdown passes behind Peyton Manning. Palmer outdueled Brees' 510 yards against the Bengals last month with three touchdown passes on his way to a top five ranking in half of the 10 passer categories that includes a 96.9 passer rating.

But the beauty of Comeback Player is there is no criteria.

Kitna won it for having a Pro Bowl-type year for a .500 team after not starting the 2002 season for the worst-in-the-league Bengals. Smith won it because he came back from an injury that allowed him to play in just one game the year before. Brees has already won it, when he did it the Kitna way and went to the 2004 Pro Bowl after being benched for five games during 2003.

But since there is no criteria, you usually get a splintered vote because everybody has a different concept of Comeback. Kitna won with just eight of the 50 votes in edging the Cowboys' Quincy Wilson by one.

And this year should be no different. Along with Palmer and Brees other potential candidates are Saints running back Deuce McAllister (51 yards from a 1,000-ard season after a knee injury), Jets quarterback Chad Pennington (has New York in the playoff hunt after overcoming two major shoulder problems that wiped out all but a month last year), and what if the Eagles make the playoffs behind quarterback Jeff Garcia?

COMEBACK KINGS:

Palmer: 442 attempts; 283 completions; 64 percent; 3,575 yards; 8.1 average; 24 TDs; 11 Int.; 96.9 rating

Brees: 517 attempts; 339 completions; 65.6 percent; 4,240 yards; 8.2 average.; 25 TDs; 11 Int.; 98.2 rating

Quarterbacks seem to have the edge. They have been four of the nine recipients.

"Carson didn't miss any games. I think it should go to someone who had to come back from not playing," said Ed Bouchette of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

So Bouchette is looking at Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor, a guy that missed five games last year and is 10th in rushing this year with 1,120 yards. But like several voters contacted Thursday, Bouchette, who covers the Steelers, hasn't even thought about it yet.

"I've been worried about tiebreakers," he said. "The whole thing could change in another week."

Larry Weisman of USA Today didn't have much luck with his guy last year, Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer. After breaking his leg in 2004 in the second game, Spicer rebounded for a career-high in sacks in 2005. But offense usually rules. Six of the nine winners are quarterbacks, receivers or running backs.

"I think Carson is a guy who is going to get some votes," Weisman said. "Brees is obviously going to get a lot. too. It probably comes down to them."

Attner is in a quandary over Brees and Palmer because their stories are so similar. "I think it's got to be the guy who overcomes the biggest obstacles," he said.

Shoulder or knee?

Jim Corbett of USA Today Sports Weekly submits Pennington because he was left for dead during an offseason the Jets traded for Patrick Ramsey.

"Most people thought prior to training camp he'd lose his job to maybe even the rookie (second-rounder Kellen Clemens)," Corbett said. "I just remember people saying it was unprecedented he could come back, and on top of that they lost (running back) Curtis Martin and look where he's got those guys."

Pennington doesn't have near Palmer-Brees numbers (he's thrown 16 interceptions and is 14th in passer rating), but he does play in New York.

Still, Corbett thinks Palmer's injury is about as high profile as any and that he'll get big-time consideration. He, for one, knows Palmer didn't just show up and put up the same numbers because he covered the Bengals' 17-14 win over Carolina two months ago.

"He said it even then; that he felt he was still trying to get his mechanics back," Corbett said. "And then he really took off a couple of weeks later, and was really following through. I think people also remember if he didn't get hurt, the Bengals could have very well been a Super Bowl team."

If Brees is getting hailed for his leadership in New Orleans, Palmer is getting the same treatment in Cincinnati. During Wednesday's news conference introducing the Bengals Pro Bowlers, tackle Willie Anderson saluted that part of Palmer's game.

"He won't admit it, but I think our offense and our team goes better when he is that vocal leader," Anderson said. "Guys the last two seasons have paid more attention to him. It functions only if he's the leader of the offense and the team. When times have gone bad, the first thing he says is 'my fault.' Well, we all know it wasn't his fault. The great guys do that. The great guys take that pressure off other guys."

Palmer was taking the pressure off those guys even on Thursday as they prepped for the biggest game of the year. With the media watching his every move, he faked a wince when he threw his first warmup ball and got some laughs.

But the ho-hum expectation may prevent Palmer from joining Kitna on the comeback rolls. Running back Rudi Johnson talked Thursday about when he knew Palmer would be truly back.

"You've got to remember, I worked out with him every day," said Johnson, who was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. "I saw him every day. We were 'the knee guys.' I knew. I knew that first Monday Night game. Green Bay in the preseason."

So much for surprises.

There only seems to be one surprised guy.

"I don't even know who the candidates are," said Palmer this week when asked how he would vote.

Now he does.

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