49ers already planning for life w/o Newberry

It hurts just to watch Jeremy Newberry these days. But the 49ers were spared that pain Tuesday when the veteran center didn't make it out to the practice field, the fourth day in a row his deteriorating knees have put him on the shelf. That's a number that's sure to grow, since Newberry's having trouble even walking, and those missed days amount to time running out on his valiant comeback attempt.

The "R" word is not something anybody wants to let slip around Newberry, or even in any discussion about him, but the two-time Pro Bowler said himself, "that's definitely a possibility," when the subject was broached by reporters on Monday.

But, Newberry continued, "Not right now. But we'll see what happens. I'm very concerned for my career, No. 1, and No. 2, I hope that my legs get back to feeling like they were when I first showed up at training camp just so I can get around."

Newberry labored and limped just to get around the locker room again on Tuesday, when he remained inside the team facility instead of standing on the sidelines watching practice.

"He might have even been in the pool to get some cardiovascular (work) without putting weight on the knee," coach Mike Nolan said.

How is Newberry ever supposed to play football again in the dog-eat-dog NFL when it hurts to put weight on a knee that has had three surgical procedures, including a major microfracture procedure last year when holes were drilled into his kneecap to promote growth of scar tissue that would serve as synthetic cartilage to cushion the joints in his cartilage-less knee?

And now the latest - Newberry's left knee is aching almost as badly. Newberry said he had a Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam last week that revealed significant loss of cartilage in his left knee as well. That knee is headed toward major corrective surgery in the near future, too.

There are times, Newberry said, when his knees buckle when he walks. And times when he's driving that he has to put his car in cruise control, just so he can move his legs around to alleviate the pain shooting through them.

As Newberry grimaces and bears it, his struggles aren't exactly a boost to team morale.

"It's tough," quarterback Alex Smith said. "You're talking about a guy that when I came in here (in 2005) was the biggest leader on offense - probably one of the only leaders. He kind of got things going, he was the center of the offense, he was the focal point, he brought a lot of that together. When he got in meetings he was very vocal, getting things going. It's tough to see a guy like that - he's been part of the team for such a long time - to be kind of battling that right now. I know he wants to be here when this thing turns around and be a part of this."

The 49ers, of course, must move on while Newberry's comeback stalls. It's making Nolan's decision to keep Eric Heitmann with the first-team offense this summer the right move. Heitmann - who replaced Newberry at center last year when he finally couldn't answer the call any longer after starting 10 of the team's first 11 games - is no Newberry in his vintage form, but at least he still can walk after a week of training camp practices.

The 49ers are not going to push Newberry - not onto the field, not off the field, and certainly not into retirement. Of course, they still have a few weeks to operate in that holding pattern. The first summer roster cutdown isn't until August 29.

In fact, after seeing Newberry tough it out last year, when he missed most of the practice week but then answered the starting the call on Sunday, Nolan didn't seem to put much stock in the ominous signs that have popped up around Newberry and his playing status this past week.

"I wouldn't say quite yet that it sets him back," Nolan said Monday, "but if it continues, that's a setback. Right now, for just a couple of days, no. We'll see what it means. Is his body going to help him accomplish his goal or will his body make it hard on him? We'll see. The long term will tell us what it means."

The 49ers got a little closer to the long-term answer Tuesday, when Newberry was just as pained as the day before.

But the Niners, you see, already have been planning for life without Newberry. Nolan didn't even blink Tuesday when SFI asked how Newberry's absence affects the team's practice rotation at center.

Because it doesn't.

"It just turns into the (afternoon) practices that we had without him," responded Nolan, who had been limiting Newberry to just the morning practice session each day in camp. "That is (David) Baas gets some more reps, it's within that same rotation we had. (Ben) Sobieski gets a few reps. It changes now on the center, the complexion of that position, but also the guards, because we're pulling somebody out of the guard (rotation) to put in (at center), so the next guard gets to move up."

That's the way it works in the NFL with injured players - teams move on without them. The 49ers have had to do that each of the past two seasons with Newberry, who also missed 15 games in 2004 with knee and back injuries. But this could be, and probably should be, the last time.

"I'd love to have him in front of me again," Smith said.

But Newberry has the rest of his life in front of him, and at this point - as the 30-year-old warrior strains to take his next step - that's what everybody should be worrying about. And nobody more than Newberry himself.

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