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 CINCINNATI (AP) -The high-tech, hinged knee brace hangs from a hook in Carson Palmer's locker, a symbol of how far the quarterback has come from his career-threatening injury.
A year and a half later, he doesn't even need a brace.
Palmer is back to full health and playing at full speed during the Cincinnati Bengals' weekend minicamp, a tantalizing sign for an underachieving team that failed to make the playoffs last season.
This year, there are no excuses.
``It feels good for him,'' running back Rudi Johnson said. ``He doesn't have to answer as many questions about the knee. I'm happy for him. At the same time, it's definitely a good thing on the field. Having your leader back going into minicamp and training camp healthy makes everything better.''
Palmer tore ligaments, dislocated his knee cap and suffered cartilage damage during a playoff loss to Pittsburgh at the end of the 2005 season, the Bengals' first playoff appearance since 1990.
He was limited in minicamp and training camp last year, and wasn't fully back to form until the middle of the season - still way ahead of schedule. The Bengals finished 8-8 for the third time in coach Marvin Lewis' four seasons, and came away wondering what might have been if Palmer hadn't been so limited at the outset.
``It will be different with us being able to go out and throw with Carson this year,'' receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. ``Last year, he couldn't do that. Obviously it will help us. We'll be a better team.''
Palmer threw for a club-record 4,035 yards last season and was MVP of the Pro Bowl. He has spent the offseason working out with his receivers, trying to get their timing down so they can get off to a fast start.
His knee is such an afterthought that he isn't wearing the precautionary brace for minicamp this weekend.
``I'll definitely be wearing it for games,'' Palmer said. ``But in (workouts) if I'm not going to get hit, there's no need to have it on.''
The knee is no longer an issue. Missing out on the playoffs still stings.
The Bengals have invested a lot of money in keeping their offense together the last two years. They have been one of the league's best at piling up yards and points, but haven't been able to become one of its elite teams.
Palmer senses the Bengals have a window of opportunity to become one of the best.
``I think our window is open,'' he said. ``I don't know if it's open for a year or if it's open for five or six years. Only time will tell that. We're definitely good enough to win a Super Bowl. But a lot of teams are good enough. It just depends on how hard you work.''
There's more to it, of course. The Bengals severely hurt themselves last season with all of their misconduct. No. 3 receiver Chris Henry was benched for one game and suspended for two more by the NFL. Middle linebacker Odell Thurman was suspended for the entire season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Henry has been suspended for the first eight games of the 2007 season. Thurman can apply to the league for reinstatement this summer.
Palmer and other veterans have urged Lewis to crack down on players who refuse to act responsibly. Palmer reiterated during minicamp that the Bengals have enough talent to be a title contender, if they can get their act together.
``We can be one of the better teams in this league, and we should be one of the better teams in this league,'' he said. ``We just need to go out there and play like it.''
Although it's important for the team's leaders to speak out, Palmer knows that it's ultimately up to the troubled players to change their lives and the team's image.
``I mean, there's only so much you can say,'' Palmer said. ``Nobody needs to hear, 'Hey, don't do anything illegal.'
``Some guys made some bad decisions and decisions they wish they could have back, but there's nothing you can really say (to them). You can state the obvious, but that doesn't really do anything.''

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