The Philadelphia Eagles don't have clearance from Terrell Owens's doctor, but they plan to attempt to hurry along the standout wide receiver's recovery from an ankle injury with the hope that he can play in the Super Bowl.
Eagles Coach Andy Reid and head trainer Rick Burkholder said yesterday that Owens will continue to rehabilitate his surgically repaired ankle and a decision about playing him against the New England Patriots in 10 days in Jacksonville, Fla., will be made based on whether Owens and the team's coaches and medical staff feel he would be able to compete effectively without re-injuring himself.
The medical community is skeptical. Orthopedist Mark Myerson, who operated on Owens's severely sprained ankle last month at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, said after re-examining Owens on Tuesday that he would not clear Owens to play in the game.
At a news conference yesterday, Burkholder said: "We understand Dr. Myerson's point of view. We expected it when we went down there [for a follow-up]. . . . As a liability issue, he couldn't clear him. We understand that. . . . It's just that our risk-reward is different than his. [Myerson] has great risk in clearing Terrell to play. He has no reward. We think that there's some risk, and there's great reward."
Burkholder accompanied Owens to Baltimore to meet with Myerson. Burkholder said that Myerson took X-rays and watched a DVD prepared by the Eagles showing Owens's progress. According to Burkholder, Myerson indicated that Owens was further along than expected in his rehabilitation.
Owens worked out on a treadmill late Tuesday after returning to Philadelphia, Burkholder said, to begin a running program to test his ankle. If all goes well, Burkholder said, the Eagles will consider allowing Owens to practice. Owens told Myerson on Tuesday that he was experiencing some soreness in his ankle, Burkholder said, but there have been no setbacks in his rehabilitation.
"If he has a setback in this rehab, the idea of playing in the Super Bowl is probably off," Burkholder said.
The Super Bowl comes seven weeks after Owens was injured. According to Burkholder, Myerson initially talked to Owens and to the team about a rehabilitation period of five to seven weeks, but later changed that timetable to eight to 10 weeks. Still, Burkholder said the Eagles are not feuding with Myerson, who performed foot surgery yesterday on another of the club's players, tight end Chad Lewis. Burkholder said the Eagles' research uncovered an NFL wide receiver who played on opening day one season six weeks after suffering an identical injury during training camp. He refused to identify the player.
Owens suffered a syndesmotic, or "high" ankle sprain, a torn deltoid ligament and a fractured fibula, when he was dragged down by Dallas safety Roy Williams during the Eagles' victory over the Cowboys on Dec. 19. Myerson performed surgery three days later, inserting two screws and a plate to stabilize the ankle joint during a one-hour procedure. The screws were placed through Owens's tibia and fibula, the major bones of the lower leg. Myerson said at the time that he also had to make a second incision, required in only about 10 percent of such procedures, to lift the torn deltoid ligament out of Owens's ankle joint.
A high ankle sprain is defined as a tearing of the syndesmotic ligament that holds together the tibia and fibula. It results from an outward turning of the ankle -- rather than the inward turning that results in a typical ankle sprain, in which the damage is to the anterior talofibular ligament. It is more severe and takes longer to heal than a typical sprain and requires surgery when there is significant displacement of the bones.
"If you don't let it heal, that ligament will continue to tear," said Jay Hertel, an assistant professor in the graduate athletic training program at the University of Virginia.
Every time a person with a high ankle sprain puts weight on the leg, the tibia and fibula pull apart, Hertel said. An athlete who returns to competition too soon risks another injury that perhaps could be even more severe, he added. He said he is not familiar with the particulars of Owens's case but indicated that, in general, the recovery period before returning to athletic competition is eight to 12 weeks. "It is virtually unheard of to come back faster than that," Hertel said by telephone.
Myerson, the director of the Institute for Foot and Ankle Reconstruction at Mercy, said during a news conference on the day of the surgery that the procedure "from a technical perspective . . . was very successful." Myerson said then he thought there was a "reasonable possibility" that Owens would heal quickly enough to play in the Super Bowl, but added "that is not predictable" because it depended on how Owens's ankle responded to his rehabilitation. Myerson indicated that day that he previously had seen athletes return within seven weeks to compete at a high level, and he and Eagles officials said that the fracture in Owens's fibula would heal on its own before his ankle healed.
A written statement released by the hospital Tuesday, however, said that Myerson was pleased with Owens's progress but would not clear him to play in the Super Bowl because the normal recovery period of eight to 10 weeks had not elapsed and there was a risk of re-injury. The hospital's statement indicated that Myerson would not comment further.
The Eagles practiced yesterday without Owens, and Reid said the team's game plan will be formulated without Owens. "He's a great player," Reid said. "Would you love to have him there? Yeah. But would you put him at risk? No, you wouldn't do that."
At the very least, Reid probably will want to keep the Patriots guessing about Owens's status until shortly before game time.
"I would love to have T.O. there," Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "But if he's not ready, if it's going to jeopardize his career in the long run, I would rather he not play."
Owens has said all along that he hopes to play but would not do anything to put his career in jeopardy. He said Monday that his rehabilitation was ahead of schedule and he hoped to play against the Patriots but stopped short of saying he was certain he'd be able to play.