Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer falls to the turf as his anterior cruciate ligament gives way during a game against the Rams this season.
From the day after Carson Palmer's left ACL ripped for a second time – the day when the Cardinals quarterback met with the media Nov. 10 – he talked about how he would "hopefully be back here and be ready to roll by OTA time."
He reiterated a similar thought the day after the Cardinals lost to the Panthers in the Wild Card playoff game. Then Tuesday, from the Senior Bowl during an interview with SiriusXM NFL radio, coach Bruce Arians said he thinks Palmer will be back by minicamp.
Also, Arians added, "I wouldn't put it past him to be to be out there in some of the OTAs."
The optimism is refreshing in light of all the negative injury news Palmer suffered through in 2015. But as
always following an ACL injury, there is a difference between coming back to play and coming back to play well.
The last handful of rehabbed ACL examples for the Cardinals show pretty much what you'd expect, that it takes some time to get your legs – or in this case, your knee – underneath you.
Last season, safety Tyrann Mathieu was in the glare of the ACL-comeback spotlight. His injury was much more severe than Palmer's, with additional ligaments damaged. He was hurt in early December of 2013, and while he was running at the outset of training camp July 25, he wasn't practicing. That came on Aug. 20, but he didn't make his debut in a game until Sept. 14 – after sitting out the opener – and he really wasn't able to make an impact in a game until the Cardinals played the Eagles Oct. 26.
Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, who tore his ACL in the 2013 season finale, also returned during training camp. But he never did find the same level of play he exhibited before his injury and was often inactive this season. Ta'amu played just seven games, with a lone assisted tackle.
Back in 2011, cornerback Greg Toler tore his ACL in the third preseason game, in a similar timeframe of this year's ACL tear to defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Toler was back on the field for OTAs in 2012, but wasn't right. He missed practice later in camp because of another knee injury he said was the result of overcompensating for his repaired injury and then suffered a hip injury that delayed his comeback. He finally was making an impact four games into that season.
Linebacker O'Brien Schofield was drafted in 2010 after tearing up his knee in a January Senior Bowl practice and never did look right until
- Tight end Stephen Spach needed until deep into the 2009 season to be able to do much after tearing his ACL in the Atlanta Wild Card playoff game in January, 2009, during the Cardinals' Super Bowl run.
This isn't to say Palmer can't return. As has been repeated about most injuries but particularly about ACL comebacks, every situation is different. Dockett has insisted he will be ready to go soon, and the general thought is that Palmer's injury was as mild – if that is a term that can be used with an ACL tear – as it could have been.
Because Palmer has been through this before, he understands what is in front of him.
"You know what to prepare your mind for," Palmer said the day after the season ended. "There are mental hurdles in rehabbing a knee … but I know what to expect. I know the hard days and what they are. The physical stuff, I've been doing all my life. That's part is easy. It's the mental hurdle of day after day after day seven days a week, all the things you have to slowly do and start over with."
The Cardinals will need Palmer, but that need doesn't become real until the regular season begins in September. At quarterback, Palmer is fortunate – he doesn't have to run or cut nearly as much as if he played another position. And you never hit the quarterback in practice for any reason, which carries all the way through training camp.
Plus, Drew Stanton will be back to health and the Cardinals want to develop Logan Thomas, so even if Palmer does return for offseason work, it's not necessary for him to do everything.
Minicamp for the Cardinals began on June 10 last summer – which, if it was the same date this year, would be a little less than seven months after Palmer had his ACL surgery. OTAs would be before that.
It's a short window for rehab. Palmer, even when expressing hope in his quick return, is always sure to temper it with a caveat. He knows both he and the Cardinals need to walk the line between expectations, wants and reality.