Heiden On The Mend, But For How Much Longer?

Steve King talks to Steve Heiden, and the injured TE talks about getting back to doing what his teammates are: trying to impress the new coaching staff.

Cleveland Browns tight end Steve Heiden still smiles and laughs a lot. That's just the kind of guy he is – fun-loving, positive and optimistic.

But what he's going through now is testing all that. It's hard for him to keep from getting a little down.

Heiden has not been able to participate in these offseason practices the Browns have been conducting recently. He has had to stand on the sideline wearing a baseball cap, and an elastic bandage on his right knee.

He missed the final two games of last season on the Injured Reserve List after tearing up his knee – and to a much lesser extent, his ankle – in the 30-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 14 on Monday Night Football. He suffered a high ankle sprain that did not require surgery, but he did have to go under the knife to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament.

How long Heiden will remain out is anyone's guess. He's able to do some straight-ahead running but can't cut yet.

"I don't have a timetable," he said Thursday as the Browns completed their second voluntary, three-day, full-squad minicamp is as many weeks. "I'm going along according to what the doctor says. I want to play football, but I don't know when that's going to be."

He wants his return to be as soon as possible, obviously, but it's much deeper than the old standard of, "I'm a football player. This is what I do."

Heiden is missing out on what all – or, at least the vast majority – of his teammates are doing, and that's impressing the new coaching staff. All new coaches like to bring in their own players, and head coach Eric Mangini has already sent a lot of familiar names packing. He's using these practices in short pants and no pads to see how many others may be dispatched before the start of training camp in about two months.

"It's disappointing not to be out there," Heiden said. "I want to prove myself. I'm excited to prove myself. I want to show these guys what I can do.

"New coaches can look at film of last season all day to evaluate you, but that counts for only so much. They want to see you do it on the field, and I've not been able to do that yet. So this has been a setback."

Because of injuries and other health issues involving Kellen Winslow, and because the Browns opened in two-tight end sets much of the time, Heiden started 11 games last year, his most since 2005. He caught 23 passes for 249 yards, an average of 10.8 yards per reception, and no touchdowns.

Acquired in a trade with the San Diego Chargers just before the start of the 2002 season, he is the third-longest-tenured Brown. Now starting his eighth season in Cleveland and his 11th overall in the NFL, the 32-year-old Heiden has caught 177 passes for 1,524 yards and 11 TDs with the Browns.

"None of that means anything to Eric Mangini," Heiden said. "Because I've never played for him, I'm a rookie to him. I'm just trying to make the team. Like I said, I've got to prove myself to him."

Winslow is one of the players Mangini has dispatched, sending him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a trade. With the ultra-talented Winslow out of the picture, that has opened the door to the Browns using a tight-end-by-committee approach this year with Robert Royal, signed from the Buffalo Bills as a free agent, Martin Rucker, a fourth-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft , and whoever else – probably Heiden, but only if he can get healthy.

Plus it seems the offensive scheme being installed may fit Heiden's skill set. It looks like a lot of short passes will be20used, and he has always been good on running eight to 10 yards into an open area, turning around and then grabbing the ball – and holding on to it -- while being hit by several defenders all at one time.

"I'm excited about that prospect, but again, I've got to get on the field and show Coach Mangini that," Heiden said. "I've got to get out there and carve out a role for myself."

Something other than being a frustrated bystander, which is nothing to smile about.

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