How long can Newberry last?

You wouldn't have known Thursday afternoon that Jeremy Newberry's right knee is a mess. The two-time Pro Bowl center went through a full practice in pads with the 49ers, then appeared no worse for wear afterward before declaring, "I'm going to be ready for Sunday without a doubt." But as Newberry was the first to point out, the question now isn't if he'll start San Francisco's opener against the St. Louis Rams. It's how much deeper into the season he'll be able to go after that.

Newberry has a ready-made answer for that one, but even he knows it's a hopeful response rather than something he can be certain about.

But so far, so good. Newberry's routine of practicing on Thursdays each week – while participating in walk-throughs and limited drills the rest of the week – has gotten him to a season opener many thought he'd never make. Here Newberry is, ready to go after just two full practices since June knee surgery, and looking every bit like he can step in and make a difference along an offensive line that sorely missed him last year.

Can the eighth-year warhorse make this routine work so that he can answer the opening bell every Sunday this season?

"I'm sure hoping it goes through the whole season," Newberry said. "That's my plan. We'll visit that again in another week or two to see how it's going. I haven't played a regulation game in over a year, so we'll see how it goes after the game. But, yeah, that's definitely my plan for the whole season."

Newberry is attempting to play this season with virtually no cartilage in his right knee, which now has undergone three surgical procedures and is due for a major microfracture surgery to finally alleviate the problem once Newberry's 2005 season is done – whenever that might be.

It won't be this week. Newberry was on the field for more than three hours Thursday, participating in about 45 plays during team drills before coach Mike Nolan finally pulled him at the finish of the final team session. It was a good start-and-stop simulation of game conditions, and Newberry was feeling fine afterward, walking around the 49ers' locker room without even any ice on his knee.

"Yeah, I feel good," he said. "I feel real good. This (weekly schedule) is what we're going to try to do. I did walk-through yesterday, and then I'll do full practice (Thursday) and probably walk-through and a handful of things (Friday), and then do nothing at all until game day."

Will it work? It might, considering Newberry's threshold for pain and ability to play at a high level even when he's injured.

He already has set a precedent for doing so. In 2003, Newberry followed a similar routine after he severed a ligament in his left ankle. Despite that injury, Newberry somehow managed to start all 16 games and – perhaps even more amazingly – produced one of the finest seasons of his career.

Newberry said he didn't lose any sharpness or competitive edge by practicing only once a week that season. He feels confident it will be the same this year.

"I'm staying up on my workouts and training," he said. "Thursday's a pads day for us, a harder practice with a lot of technique stuff. I'm going out there working on that, probably more so than a few years ago. I'm still taking one-on-ones, still doing everything else that everybody else is doing in full pads.

"We're only in full pads once a week, so I don't miss any of that at all. And I take every one of those reps on walk-throughs (on other days). I'm making sure I'm tuned in every play that they're running, and making the calls in my head and out loud behind the plays when I'm not practicing."

Nobody, including Newberry, knows how his knee and right leg will hold up through an entire 60 minutes of live NFL combat. But he's already succeeded in making it to Sunday to find out. And, no matter what kind of pain he experiences against the Rams, the 49ers can at least pretty much count on Newberry making it through those 60 minutes before more questions arise about how much longer beyond that he can go.

"I don't know if I'm ever to the point where I'm not worried about it at all," Newberry said. "I'm trying to make sure I don't do too much (in practice), but I don't see myself coming out of the game during the game. I don't see that happening. Even if it's killing me, I'll probably be able to stay out there during the game. I might tape it up, but I don't foresee it being a problem."

Of course he doesn't. Newberry is a true warrior. The potential problem lies in how he – or specifically, his right knee and leg – feels the next day.


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