Back At The Helm

Published 1:05 am Friday, June 19, 2009

CINCINNATI — Carson Palmer squinted into the harsh afternoon sun, sizing up the defense. He pointed to the middle of the field with both index fingers, took the snap and threw a quick pass to rookie receiver Quan Cosby, a crisp spiral that zipped over defenders’ outstretched hands.

Perfect. Just what the Cincinnati Bengals have been missing.

Their franchise quarterback, the one with the balky elbow, was back at the center of the offense Thursday, running the show during the first day of minicamp. He wore long, white sleeves and black sweat pants, keeping his California cool in the midday heat.

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It looked and felt like old times.

‘‘Carson, he’s sweet,’’ receiver Chad Ochocinco said. ‘‘He’s on top of his stuff. As far as the elbow (injury), it’s got to be gone because all of the balls had the normal zip. He’s on point.’’

Not quite, but close. Certainly close enough for the Bengals to think that they have a chance to become respectable again.

Palmer missed a dozen games during Cincinnati’s 4-11-1 season last year. He partially tore a ligament and tendon from the bone in his passing elbow, and got conflicting medical advice on what to do about it. He could have gotten reconstructive surgery, but chose to see if it would heal on its own.

So far, it’s apparent he made the right choice. Palmer has been throwing informally and during voluntary team workouts, slowly building back his strength.

‘‘It’s getting stronger in the sense that I can throw for longer,’’ Palmer said after the morning practice. ‘‘I have the same speed on the ball at the end of practice. I’m starting to get to the point now where the ball’s not dying at the end of practice.’’

The Bengals are keeping Palmer on the equivalent of a pitch count, limiting the number of throws he makes in practice until the season begins. After his completion to Cosby in the afternoon session, Palmer removed his helmet, covered his head with a white towel and turned spectator.

Palmer’s return to form — and Ochocinco’s return to the fold — buoyed a team still smarting from its worst showing under seventh-year coach Marvin Lewis. Palmer got hurt in the third game last season, a loss to the Giants in which his arm was hit while he threw. He played one more game, sensed the elbow wasn’t right and went for tests that detected the season-ending injury.

While Palmer recovered, Ochocinco groused. He caught only 53 passes for 540 yards last season, after failing to force a trade. He skipped most of the voluntary workouts in the offseason, but showed up last week with a smile and an upbeat demeanor.

‘‘I’m back,’’ Ochocinco said. ‘‘I can’t explain it any other way. Before last year, this is how I was. I was good. I was happy. I’m good. It’s going to be a great year. We’re going to the playoffs. We’re going, man.’’

To get themselves turned around, they’ll have to protect Palmer and get the flamboyant Ochocinco to be more of a team player. During workouts Thursday, everyone wore black shorts or sweat pants except Ochocinco, who ran around in flashy orange shorts.

When he caught a pass down the sideline and went for a touchdown during an 11-on-11 drill, Ochocinco raised both arms in jubilation, let out a scream and did a hip bump with receiver Chris Henry.

Palmer didn’t mind the excess enthusiasm.

‘‘I hope it lasts all the way through Super Bowl weekend,’’ Palmer said. ‘‘And I think he is sincere. He’s excited to be here. He’s excited to be back playing football at a high level, at the level he used to play at when he was leading the AFC in yards. He’s in way better shape than I’ve seen him in a couple of years.’’

But Palmer drew a line at becoming a roommate.

Ochocinco told reporters last week that he’ll be moving in with Palmer, his wife and two young children for a week or two in July, giving them a chance to bond and catch up on missed time.

‘‘He doesn’t really have a choice,’’ the receiver repeated on Thursday.

Oh, yes he does. When Palmer’s wife, Shaelyn, heard about Ochocinco’s plan, she wasn’t thrilled with her husband.

‘‘I think she got an e-mail or something and as soon as I walked in the door from work the other day, she just gave me that look,’’ Palmer said. ‘‘And I was like, ’Whoa, whoa, calm down. It’s just media stuff. It’s just Chad being Chad. Don’t worry.’’’