Don't expect too much from T.O.

While T.O. seems intent on returning, logic says that it's unlikely he'll end up playing.

Originally Published: January 29, 2005
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

From Monday night skits with "Desperate Housewives" to his current drama "Desperate Rehab," Terrell Owens has become a publicity machine.

Owens will probably go down in history as the most publicized inactive player in 39 years of Super Bowls. If he plays, bless him. It would be a credit to hard work, dedication to his teammates and courage. Contrary to those many criticisms during his 49ers days, Owens has been a model teammate with the Eagles.

Motives aside, though, I think Owens' "Desperate Rehab" could be an exercise in futility. Logic says he won't play. Even if he does, he probably won't be effective. Years of watching great athletes make or fail to make remarkable recoveries from major injuries taught us that.

Terrell Owens
GettyThe Eagles hope to have Terrell Owens in a uniform, not street clothes, on Feb. 6.
Go back to Randy Moss' hamstring injury suffered in Week 6 earlier this season, which was minor in scope compared to Owens' injury. Moss wanted to play to continue his streak of consecutive starts that went back to his rookie season. Doctors and trainers assured Moss he couldn't damage the hamstring any more than it already was. Moss barely played in Week 7 and Week 8 before having to sit out three games. When he finally came back for the last six games, he clearly wasn't the same player. Defenders sometimes single covered him without consequence. Only rarely did Moss regain that full burst.

Amani Toomer went through similar problems with the Giants. He tried like anything to convince Giants coaches and trainers to let him play in a game against the Vikings. He worked feverishly in pregame warmups in the Metrodome. Finally, he was cleared to play. Unfortunately, the burst was not there the remainder of the season.

Toomer and Moss couldn't beat the odds, and Owens probably won't either. Orthopedic surgeon Mark Myerson was probably covering his back by not clearing Owens to play in the Super Bowl. That's understandable. Had he said Owens was fine and the receiver did significant damage by rushing back too soon, Meyerson's liable to a malpractice claim.

Getting technical for a few minutes, Owens' problem resides in the right ankle, not the right fibula. He tore the deltoid ligament that holds the tibia and fibula together. Ravens tight end Todd Heap tore the same ligament, and he couldn't play for seven weeks. While every player heals differently, seven weeks seems to be the timing for recovery from such a tear.

Owens suffered his injury Dec. 19. He had surgery Dec. 22. To stabilize the ankle, Myerson put in two 2 1/3-inch screws along with a plate. That screw and those plates are still in there. Myerson doesn't have any problem with Owens running. After all, Owens is ahead of schedule because he's working hard. Still, at five weeks since the surgery, Owens is fighting a tough time clock when it actually comes to playing.

Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder is one of the best. Burkholder was in the forefront in saving many careers for players who suffered those lisfranc injuries -- a foot problem that eventually zaps all the speed out of a player unless treated or surgically repaired. He can be trusted with Owens.

"My job as an athletic trainer for this organization and medical provider for our players, every day I weigh risk-reward," Burkholder said. "Terrell as a player has to weigh that risk-reward as coach Andy Reid does and Jeffrey Lurie does as an owner. Right now we think that the risk-reward for Terrell, and he believes this too, is that it's time to progress his rehab. We understand Dr. Myerson's point of view. It's what we expected when we went down there, that he would not clear him. We didn't even ask him about the Super Bowl at all. He brought that up. We talked basically about progressing the rehab and what his opportunity to play in the game would be.

"He said medically he could not clear him and liability-wise he could not clear him. We understand that and we expected it. We're totally on his side. He's still our ankle surgeon of choice. There's no difference of opinion with him on that. It's just that our risk-reward is different than his risk-reward. He has great risks in clearing Terrell to play and he has no reward. We think there's some risk and we think that there's great reward and right now we're going to progress with his rehab," he said.

Owens is going down a dangerous road. Several things can go wrong. He could make a wrong cut and a screw can come loose. He risks further arthritis in the ankle if he doesn't watch it. Because he hasn't been running for five weeks, atrophy naturally sets into the muscles in the right leg. Owens risks a calf muscle tear or a hamstring injury. It's not out of the question for him to tear an ACL while playing.

Risk-reward. Owens understands the risks. The reward is the Super Bowl -- his first and the Eagles' first.

It has been an interesting year watching how medical advancements have pushed the envelope of recovery. Curt Schilling challenged the risk-reward of his torn foot tendon injury but undergoing an experimental procedure to keep him pitching during the World Series. The reward was a Red Sox championship. The risk is still there. He might not be ready for the start of the regular season. It's not out of the question for him not to be the same pitcher again. Jets quarterback Chad Pennington played six games with a torn rotator cuff. His reward was helping the Jets make the playoffs. If surgery goes well, Pennington should be ready for training camp. But rotator cuff surgeries for quarterbacks are rare. There are no guarantees.

I still remember how Jerry Rice and Rod Woodson tore ACL ligaments and tried to come back during the same season. That Monday night game in which Rice returned and then broke his kneecap was a wakeup call that a player like Owens needs to listen to.

It's one thing to practice, but playing in a game is different. The speed of an NFL game can be deceiving. In the playoffs, the speed intensifies. By the time you get to the Super Bowl, the speed staggers the imagination.

Once Owens starts to run routes and make cuts next week in practice, the ankle will start to swell. Before he started to run this week, Owens had soreness around the plate area. That's expected.

At the slightest setback, Buckholder vows to shut down the comeback. Owens is a $47 million investment. But, for now, he has the green light.

"That's part of medicine -- it's not an exact science and (Myerson) went to the eight- to 10-week mark, which we couldn't reach by Super Bowl Sunday," Burkholder said. "We're all right with that, we understand that. But, in our research in looking at this injury and how I was going to approach the rehab, we did find an NFL player who plays the same position as Terrell that had the high ankle sprain that required the screws and had a fracture up high who did it in training camp and played on opening week. It was six weeks from the injury and he played at a high level and he faced those same risks that Terrell faces and he's done fine with it. So we do have a point of reference in the NFL, someone who played the exact position at a high level."

Ultimately, Owens' chances of playing are a long shot. It's worth the try, but don't count on him.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

ALSO SEE