Manning subs for improving Palmer

Posted: 4:10 p.m.

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Palmer (right) was voted FedEx Air NFL Player of the Year over Tom Brady and Peyton Manning (left), last year's recipient.

DETROIT - So you want a backup for Carson Palmer? How about Peyton Manning?

It was supposed to be a simple game of catch here when the NFL's two top passers were going to pass the torch instead of the records.

But with Palmer and his world-famous knee laid up in California, Manning, the Colts Pro Bowl quarterback could only wish him well instead of giving him the Fed Ex Air NFL Player of the Year award. In what helps certify the Bengals as one of the NFL's more intriguing teams, the fans gave the nod to Palmer over such popular stalwarts as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Manning, the defending champion.

"He really has taken his game to the next level," Manning said during the ceremony at Children's Hospital of Michigan. "I'm sorry he couldn't be here today."

The Bengals finally had that ray of sunshine in a curious offseason. Not only did Palmer win the vote, but the club reported he's on schedule to start the season opener.

The guy who is really sorry that Palmer couldn't make it Wednesday is Boomer Esiason, the former Bengals quarterback and spokesman for FedEx that has been shaking his head ever since Palmer got hurt.

"If Carson hadn't got hurt, maybe the Cincinnati Bengals would have been here instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers," Esiason told a group of children, doctors, and administrators. "On his doctor's advice, he didn't get on the plane."

Apparently, Palmer had just got off and on a plane to Houston and back home again for the three-week checkup on his reconstructed knee. Dr. Lonnie Paulos, who performed the surgery Jan. 10, pronounced him fit before Palmer returned home to Orange County. Bengals assistant trainer Billy Brooks has also been logging some miles to California to check on the rehab process that is expected to move to Paul Brown Stadium in the next couple of months.

"Dr. Paulos has told us he's just where we hoped he would be," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in a statement. "Carson has much more rehab ahead, obviously, but at this point he's on schedule for our goal of having him ready to open the 2006 season. This is encouraging news for everyone in our organization."

Palmer has been keeping such a low profile that even Manning, a two-time NFL MVP, has been able to leave only voice messages on his cell phone.

"It's the worst thing to see," said Manning, who felt it watching at home when Palmer took the hit that tore two knee ligaments. "Being a quarterback, I feel like part of his family watching that. I've called him a few times to tell him I'm thinking about him. Quarterback is a unique fraternity. When you're playing against him, you don't want him to have a great day, but you don't want to see a quarterback get booed, get injured or have one of those rotten games."

**
COMPARING PALMER AND MANNING
**
**
First 29 NFL games
**
**Palmer**
**Att** **Comp** **Yds** **Pct** **YPA** **TD** **Int** **Rate** **Record**
941 608 6733 64.6 7.15 50 30 90.2 17-12
**Manning**
**Att** **Comp** **Yds** **Pct** **YPA** **TD** **Int** **Rate** **Record**
999 589 7137 58.9 7.14 50 42 80.1 13-16

Manning and Esiason sense a changing of the guard, led by Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback Esiason thinks is going to win a Super Bowl ring at age 23 on Sunday. In his first 29 pro starts, Palmer has matched Manning's 50 touchdown passes with 17 fewer interceptions and a better completion percentage on 58 fewer passes.

Manning watched tape of Troy Aikman and Dan Marino when he broke in during the late '90s. Now he realizes guys like Palmer are watching him.

But he's also watching Palmer. When he prepared for the Steelers in the playoffs, Manning took note of how Palmer attacked the Pittsburgh defense in becoming the last guy to beat Big Ben. Manning has come away impressed with how seasoned and quickly Palmer plays.

"We had a lot of common opponents so I watched a lot of him on tape," Manning said. "You're watching the defense, but you catch yourself looking at the quarterback. You look at how the Bengals attack an opponent, how Carson attacks a defense. He's really used his experience with a couple of years in the league and sitting on the sidelines one year. You can see him make really quick decisions, which is what you want to do as a quarterback. That's the thing that really jumps out. Not to mention he's got outstanding ability."

Manning wouldn't say if Palmer is ahead of him at this stage of his career running the No Huddle. But that is a part of Palmer's game that Manning admires. If Manning is the No Huddle maestro, Palmer is in the wings. Manning had to admit that he couldn't really watch it up close when Palmer and Manning microwaved a good chunk of their 82 points out of the No Huddle during the Colts' 45-37 victory at PBS back on Nov. 20. While Manning unleashed five touchdown drives in the first half and finished the game passing for 365 yards, Palmer went for 335 in hitting 65 percent of his passes to cut up a Colts defense that eventually finished 11th in the league.

"That was a good show if you like offense. There wasn't much time to watch because the series would be over, and they were about to go in the end zone already," Manning said. "They do a good job with their offense. They've got good players. Smart players. It's impressive to watch."

Esiason doesn't anticipate Manning and Palmer battling for this award for the next six or seven years or so as much as he looks forward to Palmer hooking up with Roethlisberger twice a year.

"That's the duel every Bengals fan is looking forward to, that I'm looking forward to," Esiason said. "How disappointed were the Cincinnati Bengals fans and fans of the NFL when Carson went down in that playoff game? We were all hoping for a classic and I think we would have got it."

Manning knows the knee that got hit, the front one for the throwing motion is "the one that's most exposed," but he's not sure if that's a plus because it wasn't his plant foot.

"I don't know. Never had an injury like that, never had surgery," said Esiason, who is urging calm in invoking how the Jets' Chad Pennington dealt with his shoulder surgery.

"I just hope they don't rush him back. They'll find themselves in the same situation the Jets had with Chad. The future is not next September and next October. They had better get him healthy so that the knee makes a sound and strong comeback."

If it was a good day for Palmer, it was an even better day for the children of Michigan. Esiason and Manning presented a $25,000 check from the NFL and FedEx to the hospital that will provide a pediatric ventilator for heart surgeries.

"It's good to be with the kids," Manning said.

On a day of hope, it made you wonder if Palmer would be giving the award to himself next year in Miami.

Seattle running back Shaun Alexander also had a good excuse for not showing up to accept the FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Year award. He spent Wednesday morning meeting with the media and preparing for the first practice of Super Bowl week.

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