The Bengals had established their dominance in the AFC North in 2005. They topped the Steelers and Ravens en-route to their first playoff appearance in longer than you could count on your fingers. The game would be played at home against the loathed Steelers. The same Steelers the Bengals had learned not to fear earlier in the season.
They didn't fear them at all. As a fan in attendance at the game, the atmosphere was electric. The Steelers had the ball first and struggled. While they did manage one first down, they also had a false start due to the loud crowd noise generated by the Bengals faithful. As the Bengals offense stepped onto the field the crowd was behind them 100 percent.
The Bengals ran for a short gain on first down and in the span of one play something awesome and terrible happened at the same time. Carson Palmer dropped back on his second play from scrimmage and unleashed a 66 yard bomb to Steelers killer, Chris Henry. The pass was caught and the fans went wild. From my vantage point, the bad news was quickly evident. Carson Palmer was crumbled in the backfield and Kimo Von Oelhoffen was calling for trainers to come look at the Bengals' signal caller. For what seemed like an eternity, fans in the stadium took guesses on what could have happened. When the medical staff brought the cart out, as a collective, we knew it was over.
Adding insult to injury (or injury to injury) the Bengals also lost Chris Henry on the play to an injury. While the Bengals still held a lead at halftime, the mood around the stadium from the players to the fans changed. This was not going to be the Bengals' year and we were left wondering what we were going to see from Palmer in the future. It was the worst way a great season could have ended. The feeling was shared by the injured Bengals quarterback. In an article with Sports Illustrated's, Michael Silver Carson recounted:
"Just an eerie, awkward feeling," Palmer says in the story. "It seemed like only five minutes had passed since I'd been on that field and my teammates were still out there battling. I could hear the crowd as I was driving away, and I was listening to them talk about me on the radio. We had it all laid out in front of us; the Super Bowl could've been ours. I felt like I deserted them or something."
The Bengals dropped the game and the Steelers went on to make an improbable run for another Super Bowl title. It was a depressing moment for anyone affiliated with the Bengals. It was time to turn the page and try and figure out how long it would take a quarterback with a torn ACL, MCL, Patellar Tendon and a dislocated kneecap to get back on the field.
As Bengals fans were left with thoughts of what could have been after Carson Palmer had his knee destroyed on his second snap of the playoff game against the Steelers, Palmer himself was ready to get back. In one of the most aggressive rehabs for such a devastating knee injury, Palmer was ready to return to football just seven months after the disaster. He had his debut on the national stage against the Packers. For pre-season excitement, this could not be beat. The stadium was sold out and all eyes were on the new knee for No. 9.
Was this a gimmick? Were the Bengals floating the idea that No. 9 could be back to keep the season ticket holders engaged? There was not much confidence in the backups if Carson was not going to be the guy. An injury of that magnitude usually required at least a year of rehab. Seven months was unheard of.
Boy, did he deliver. Racing out to a 24 point lead, Palmer shined with a 136.9 passer rating in the first half. Everyone held their breath as he took hit after hit in the game but delivered with the same accuracy and tenacity that he showed pre-knee injury. For a first game back, he silenced the doubters and had fans swelling with excitement for the season to pick up right where the previous ended.
Palmer would go on to play every game in 2006, reaching 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career and recording a 93.9 passer rating -- second to only his 101.1 rating in 2005. He also set career highs in completed passes of 20 yards or more (36) and 40 yards or more (15) during the season. Ultimately the Bengals failed to make the playoffs, but Palmer was not the culprit. He led the team into a position to win the last two games on the final drives. Both times falling short. Had the Bengals won either, they would have been back to the playoffs. In the two seasons after hurting his knee (2006 and 2007), Palmer would throw a combined 54 touchdown passes and average 4,083 yards passing per season.
Carson went on to play in the Pro-Bowl and was the MVP for the AFC team. All this within 13 months of his surgery. This still remains one of the most aggressive comebacks to a devastating injury we have seen.
The story wouldn't be complete without a mention of one of the reasons it was all possible. As the victim of a drunk driver, Julie De Rossi was killed in an auto accident in Houston at the same general time of Carson's injury. De Rossi checked the box when she obtained her driver's license that made her an organ donor. It was mentioned at the time that she helped the lives of around 50 people. One of those was Carson Palmer. Her Achilles tendon became the glue that held Palmer's knee together. This is an incredible story that can still be found at Bloomberg.com.