After sitting out training camp and missing the first seven weeks of last season over a contract dispute, Vincent Jackson reported to the Chargers in late October 2010. Once on the practice field, the sculpted 6'5", 230-pound wide receiver looked as if he had never been away, using his speed and 39-inch vertical hops to make one play after another. But in his first game back (after serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy) he strained a calf and was sidelined for a week.
"I spent the whole time away training at a performance facility in Arizona, and I felt really good my first three weeks in practice," Jackson said last week, "but I don't think you can imitate football practices and games, the physicality of it. After a few weeks it started to take a toll. It almost felt like training camp."
Like Jackson, quarterback Carson Palmer sat out training camp and the first six weeks of this season, although his motivation was to force a trade from the Bengals. He got his wish on Oct. 18, two days after Raiders starter Jason Campbell broke his right collarbone. Oakland surrendered a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-round pick in 2013. The question now: How long will it take Palmer, the first selection in the 2003 NFL draft, to deliver on expectations?
If his first two appearances are an indication, it's going to be a roller-coaster ride. Two weeks ago Palmer came off the bench and threw three interceptions in a 28--0 loss to the Chiefs. On Sunday, in his first start, he was picked off three more times while throwing for 332 yards and three scores in a 38--24 loss to the Broncos. It's the first time in his career he has thrown three picks in back-to-back games.
Acquiring the 31-year-old Palmer was an all-in move by the Raiders, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2002. The loss to the Broncos left them tied with the Chargers and the Chiefs at 4--4 atop the AFC West, and they will need strong play from Palmer to keep defenses from loading up to stop running back Darren McFadden, who is averaging 87.7 yards rushing per game (but has missed the Denver game with a sprained right foot), and Michael Bush, who has run for 195 yards in the last two games.
Palmer admitted to experiencing fatigue in his lower body on Sunday, but the bigger challenge could be getting familiar with his receivers and the offense. "It's hard to get a feel for individuals on film," he said. "It's way easier when you're in the heat of the moment, and you're looking them in the eyes and you see that they each want the ball." Some have assumed Oakland's system is the same as the one Palmer ran in Cincinnati, where Raiders coach Hue Jackson was receivers coach from 2004 to '06. But Palmer says there are major differences in terminology, reads and protections. And developing a rapport with the wideouts takes time. To ease the transition, Oakland on Nov. 1 signed T.J. Houshmandzedeh, one of Palmer's former targets in Cincinnati.
"There are things that only come with repetition, in games as well as practice," says former Raiders QB Rich Gannon, now a CBS analyst. "You're not sure who you're throwing to, how they run routes, how they come in and out of cuts. Everybody is different. You're trying to get some continuity with it, and it's hard."
That was obvious against the Broncos. At times Palmer threw short and receivers went long. At other times he tried to drop a pass into an open spot in a zone only to have his wideouts looking elsewhere. "When there's a lot of uncertainty, the quarterback begins to say, 'Well, I don't really know him. I don't really trust him.' " says Gannon. "I played with Tim Brown and Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter. I knew what I could and couldn't do with each of them. That takes months and years to develop. Am I suggesting they can't go out and have a fluid day? No. But at the same time you could also have three or four situations in the game where, Geez, what happened there? There's confusion, and it only takes a couple of those in a game to ruin your day." If not your season.