-- By the time Todd Heap finally made his way out of the Baltimore Ravens' training room on Wednesday afternoon, nearly 30 minutes had passed since the end of practice and many of his teammates had already left the locker room.
The two-time Pro Bowl tight end wasn't getting treatment for any significant new injuries; he was just doing "maintenance work," taking care of the nicks and bruises that are part of life for a football player, particularly one who underwent separate surgeries on his ankle and shoulder during the offseason.
"Relative to last year, I'm very healthy," Heap said with a laugh. "I'm happy about that. Obviously I just came off of two surgeries, and I'm barely five, six months off of shoulder surgery. But I've put in a lot of time and a lot of work to be playing now at the level I'm at."
Heap is starting to return to the form that made him one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. He had six catches for 79 yards and one touchdown (the Ravens' only touchdown) in last week's 16-3 win over the Cleveland Browns, his most productive and effective game of the season. For the season, Heap is second on the team with 21 catches for 266 yards.
Last year was the most difficult of Heap's five-year career. After opening the season with a career-high nine catches for 86 yards against Cleveland, Heap sprained his right ankle late in the first half of the second game, against Pittsburgh. He was expected to be out for two to four weeks, but was sidelined for nine straight games.
Heap's offseason was devoted to rehabilitating his ankle and shoulder and regaining strength. He wasn't able to participate in minicamp, though he attended so he could start to familiarize himself with the changes in the Baltimore offense. The Ravens hired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator and signed free agent wide receiver Derrick Mason (team-leading 35 catches for 363 yards).
Heap spent the first three weeks of training camp working with team trainers either in the weight room or on the sidelines of the practice field. He played in only one preseason game, which meant that he had little time to really prepare for the season.
"All that plays a factor," tight ends coach Wade Harman said.
Heap has disappeared at times this season; he didn't have a catch in the first half of losses to Tennessee and Detroit. Early in the season, the Ravens struggled to protect their quarterback (they gave up nine sacks in the first two games), and Heap appeared to spend more time blocking than catching.
"We don't want to have to do that with him very often, but there are times when we've got to, we have to protect the quarterback," Harman said. "Certainly if we keep him in as much as we have in some games, it's not to our benefit."
And the Ravens certainly did not sign Heap to a six-year, $30 million contract extension in June, making him one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league, to be a blocking tight end. Heap has been one of the Ravens' most dynamic offensive weapons because he creates mismatches; his size (6 feet 5, 252 pounds) makes him tough for cornerbacks to stop, and his speed makes him difficult for linebackers to cover.
But even if Heap felt that his skills were being underutilized, he isn't the type to complain publicly. This, after all, is a man who celebrated his fat new contract by going out for pizza with his wife and young daughter.
"It's a real fine line. The way you balance it is, you let the coaches do their job and you do your job. That's what I try to do," Heap said. "It's not easy at times, but I know the coaches know what they're doing. . . . They put a lot of time in and I just feel like I want to do everything I can, everything in my power, to help us win."
Ravens Notes: Safety Ed Reed did not practice Wednesday and is "very doubtful" for Sunday's game, according to Coach Brian Billick. Reed suffered a high ankle sprain in the third quarter of last week's win against Cleveland and was walking around the Ravens' training complex without crutches.
Chad Williams is likely to start at strong safety against the Bears. He has played in every game since joining the team as a sixth-round draft pick in 2002, and though he's primarily been used in Baltimore's dime package (six defensive backs), he has made his share of big plays. He has seven interceptions (returning three for touchdowns), three sacks and one forced fumble. . . .
Quarterback Kyle Boller, who hasn't played since hyperextending his right big toe in the season opener, participated in non-contact drills. He won't play this weekend, however. . . . Running back Musa Smith, who has been sidelined since breaking his leg in gruesome fashion last November against Dallas, also returned to practice Wednesday. He is on the physically unable to perform reserve list, so the Ravens have a three-week window in which to activate him, release him, or keep him on the PUP list.