Hobson's Choice: If he's healthy, OK

Q: Since Carson Palmer is so vital to the Bengals long term success, is it that key for him to play in (at worst) 12 games this season at about 80 or 90 percent rather than sit out this year and come back in the next one and completely dominate the league and win a Super Bowl? I'm a die hard Bengals fan, but I don't want to see Palmer come back before he's ready and risk a chance to lead the Bengals to many Super Bowls to come. **--Zane G., Califon, N.J.

Not a bad thought. He didn't take a snap in 2003 and it certainly didn't hurt him in 2004. What about a scenario if you keep Palmer out until the Oct. 8 bye and if they're 0-4 or 1-3, just go ahead and ice him and try again next year?

Nah. Can't do it. When he's ready, you have to play him.

You have to figure if there is anybody who isn't going to let Palmer go out there too early, it's management. They, more than anyone, know the difference between an Akili Smith and Carson Palmer. They're the ones that are dropping nearly $120 million on him until 2014. They see the cash registers. They see the No. 9 popping up in the windows.

And the next guy who isn't going to rush him is head coach Marvin Lewis. No reason. He's here until 2010 himself, so he doesn't need this season to save himself. His future is also Velcroed to Palmer's left knee.

So you have to assume Dr. Strangelove isn't on the head sets and that a sober, sane decision is going to be made. And no one is talking about him missing the entire season.

Still, a part of me says you're right. Take the 7-9 or 4-12 or whatever, take it on the chin with him on IR, and move to 2007.

But ... Nah.

You get the sense 1-3 or 0-4 might not blow you up in this division. Yes, it's happened only once or twice that an 0-4 team made the playoffs, but you could also see Palmer leading a 9-3 stretch to finish off the season and winning the AFC North at 9-7. Implausible? He led them to an 11-3 start last season.

OK, different sked. Much tougher, you say. But, really, it's just too early to worry about the schedule. It certainly looks dastardly now, but so did last year's at this time.

It went from being one of the hardest to one of the softest in the time it took the Vikings to go on a sail, Green Bay to Pack it in, and Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Rex Grossman (among others) to get tweaked.

But, 0-4 is a longshot. In Anthony Wright, they've actually got a guy who quarterbacked an AFC North winner, has a big arm, and is around skill players he could only dream about while with Baltimore.

(But it would sure make that Sept. 17 PBS opener against the Browns a virtual must, wouldn't it?)

Wright can win games in Palmer's place and has won big games. But, let's face it. The people who have to step up if Palmer can't go aren't so much Wright or Doug Johnson. It's the defense. If the defense doesn't play much better earlier this season than it did late last season, it doesn't matter if it's Wright, Johnson, or Kerry Collins, who by the way, looks to be no factor in this mix. It's too late to teach him the offense, or so they would have you believe after they traded Dave Ragone.

So, yeah, they can still make a run at the playoffs if Palmer misses some early games, but ice him for the year?

That may be hard to explain to the other 70 players and coaches, and the countless fans.

Veterans like Willie Anderson, Brian Simmons, and Rich Braham have been bleeding and sweating for years for a shot like this. Not to mention guys like Sam Adams, Tory James, and Dexter Jackson who came here to win that elusive second Super Bowl.

How many years do they have left? It's hard to take just one season away from careers that are so short.

Still, players who suffer this injury normally don't regain their level until the second season after surgery, so here's to 2007 ...

Nah. If the doctors clear him and he's healthy, the '04 Palmer is still good enough because he'll be smarter than the '04 Palmer. As long as he has no setbacks that put him into November (you'd have to think about bringing him back then), as long as it's not a medical risk, as long as it keeps going the way it's been going, yeah.

Play him.

If the knee is good for Sept. 10, 2006, or Sept. 24, 2006, or Oct. 15, 2006, what is going to be any different on Sept. 10, 2007?

The clock is always ticking, the sand is always mounting and the calendar is always flipping.

There are only so many chances in a career.

If anyone knows that now, it's Carson himself.

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