CINCINNATI -- It used to be that any list of the NFL's elite quarterbacks included Carson Palmer somewhere near the top, right up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
The time was 2005 through 2007 and the place was Paul Brown Stadium, where Palmer leads the Raiders against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
"Many felt he was the third best quarterback in football," said NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell. "At that point Drew Brees was not yet Drew Brees, so you had Manning, Brady and Palmer."
When fans aren't booing over the way Palmer left town, saying he'd rather retire than play with the Bengals, they'll be watching to see how much magic remains in his right arm.
"I expect it be loud and extremely electric," Palmer said. "I'm not exactly expecting a welcome back."'
Cincinnati is 5-5 and in the race for its second straight playoff appearance, but Palmer's return wasn't enough to generate enough interest to sell out the game -- it is blacked out in its home market.
With the NFL's 31st-ranked running game and the Raiders having given up an NFL high 32.2 points per game, Oakland is relying on Palmer more than it ever intended. He has passed for 303.5 yards per game and is on pace to eclipse Rich Gannon's single-season franchise record of 4,689 yards in 2002.
But the Raiders are 3-7, Palmer has the occasional inexplicable interception and his name never comes up with the NFL's top quarterbacks as it did when he
For Palmer to be worth the first- and second-round draft picks the Raiders gave up for him last year after Jason Campbell broke his collarbone, he will need to re-enter the realm of the Mannings, Brees, Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski has watched Palmer closely on tape and is lukewarm on his performance, giving the Bengals the nod in the trade.
"Carson has been very uneven this year," Jaworski said in a conference call. "I see some absolutely phenomenal throws where you say, 'There is the old Carson Palmer.'
"Then I see errors in judgment and decision-making which means he's pressing and trying too hard. I see mistakes that normally a veteran quarterback would not make."
Cosell, who like Jaworski bases his analysis on watching game tape, said that before suffering an elbow injury, Palmer was a rarity in that he was a "power thrower with great accuracy."
Since the injury, which Palmer rehabilitated without surgery, Cosell said he "does not quite drive it the same way at the intermediate and deep levels that he did back in those years. But I will also say that his arm is fine. There's not a throw that he can't make right now."
Palmer's 11 interceptions include touchdown returns of 55 yards by Malcolm Jenkins last week against New Orleans, 79 yards to Asante Samuel in a 23-20 loss to Atlanta and one to Ahmad Black in a 42-32 loss to Tampa Bay after the Raiders had gotten within three points in the fourth quarter.
Bengals assistant coach Hue Jackson, who pushed for the Palmer deal last season, believes the quarterback he helped recruit to USC is as good as ever -- maybe better.
"He can still spin a football. I know the criticism of turnovers and the things people say. ... A lot of things go into interceptions that I don't think people truly understand," Jackson told reporters in Cincinnati.
Cosell agreed, stressing the Palmer's passing style puts complete trust in his receivers and can at times go awry.
"He's always been an anticipation thrower," Cosell said. "When you make throws well before receivers come out of their breaks, sometimes you have a problem. It's tough for me to say whether some of those are on Palmer or the receiver because I don't know how it was coached or what he was thinking."
Cosell said given the Raiders' poor running game and a pass defense that is "arguably one of the worst we've seen in recent history in the NFL" Palmer doesn't have much of a chance.
"I would argue he's actually played for the most part very well this year," Cosell said. "When you're always down, the slightest mistake becomes magnified. ... In most people's minds, the narrative has already been written on Carson, so it doesn't even matter what he does unless he gets to a Super Bowl.
"Obviously with this given team that has no chance of happening."