Jake Delhomme can tolerate the pain in his severely sprained right ankle. It's the deep ache in his stomach that's been unbearable for Cleveland's quarterback.

Standing on the sideline for two Sundays have been excruciating.

Inactive the last two games because of a high ankle sprain suffered in the Browns' season opener, Delhomme returned to practice for the first time in more than two weeks on Thursday as the Browns (0-3) continued to prepare for this week's game against Cincinnati (2-1).

Delhomme was noticeably favoring his ankle in the locker room and on the field, but it was a major step for the veteran, who hopes to start against the Bengals.

He can't bear the thought of not playing — again.

"It's very difficult when you got to the stadium on Sunday and there's a hollow feeling inside," he said. "To me, that's always something that you just don't feel like you're there for your teammates. That's always something that bothered me a great deal."

Delhomme said he needed to test his ankle before he would know if he can play. It's possible he could be listed as Cleveland's No. 2 quarterback against the Bengals.

Browns coach Eric Mangini said Delhomme will start on Sunday — if he can.

"He's our starting quarterback," Mangini said. "So when he's ready to start, he'll start."

During the 30 minutes of practice opened to the media, Delhomme favored his ankle, which he injured while throwing a costly interception late in the first half of Cleveland's 17-14 loss in Week 1. During drills, he struggled pushing off on some of his throws.

Seneca Wallace has filled in the past two weeks for Delhomme in losses to Kansas City and Baltimore. Mangini has been pleased with how Wallace, a career backup, has played. But if Delhomme is ready, there is zero debate among Cleveland's coaching staff on who will play.

Delhomme is the starter. Period.

Mangini had a quarterback controversy last season with Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn.

There's no such problem now.

"Jake does a lot of things really well. Seneca does a lot of things really well," Mangini explained. "In looking at what they both do well, I felt that Jake should be the starter. Jake has a great command of the offense. He has a great presence. I think he gets us into good plays, he gets us out of plays that aren't very good. He's got a lot of experience but that's not a comparative to Seneca, it's things that he does well."

Delhomme has never had an ankle injury before, so he didn't recognize the severity during the Sept. 12 game in Tampa Bay. He played the entire second half not knowing how badly he was injured.

"I knew something was bothering me, but in the course of a game adrenaline is flowing," he said, looking down at his ankle. "I didn't think it would be this."

Delhomme has attended meetings while rehabbing his injury, and he's prepared the past two weeks as if he was going to play. Not dressing for games has been tough. But on the bright side, it has given the 35-year-old a unique chance to evaluate Cleveland's offense.

He now has a better sense of what his new teammates can — and can't — do.

"It gives you the perspective of watching guys play," said Delhomme, who signed as a free agent with Cleveland in March after seven seasons with Carolina. "You're still getting familiar with a lot of guys, but watching them play, watching what they do well, watching them through the course of the game, I think that's always a positive thing in a way."

The Browns signed Delhomme for some much-needed leadership and to stabilize a position that has been anything but a strength for a decade. But with Cleveland off to an 0-3 start after blowing leads in each of its first three games, little has changed.

Delhomme, though, believes this season is more than salvageable.

"It's still very, very early," he said. "Strange things happen in this league. You just got to take one week at a time and try to build on that."

When Delhomme was with Carolina, the Panthers were one of the league's streakiest teams. A three-game losing streak would invariably be followed by a five-game winning streak. Delhomme recalled that the year after making the Super Bowl, Carolina opened 1-7 before winning six of eight.

"A couple of times we went on five- and six-game winning streaks," he said. "You just go with it. We're in a week-to-week business. We all know how this is."

Delhomme said he has not yet been asked to deliver that message to the Browns. It sounds as if he's prepared to anyway.

"We're getting close," he said. "This team is fighting. I think that was evident in how the Browns finished last year, being 1-11 and finishing off. There will not be any quit in this team."