Freeney's Fitness a Hot Topic as Week Begins

As Super Bowl week begins, South Florida is abuzz with speculation about the health of Dwight Freeney's ankle. Who is to be believed? What should we expect from the Colts' defensive end on Sunday? Eric Hartz attempts to sort fact from fiction inside ...

Dwight Freeney sprained his ankle near the end of the AFC Championship game and missed all of the Colts' practices in Indianapolis last week. Freeney arrived early in Miami for treatment and the Pro Bowl, and Sunday, the Super Bowl media machine kicked into full gear with its first "real" story of the week.

First, ESPN reported that Freeney faced an uphill battle to play in Sunday's big game. ESPN's Adam Schefter later Tweeted the reason why — he had torn ligaments in his ankle, not just a sprain as was reported earlier in the week.

However, the team, through PR chief Craig Kelley, denied the ESPN reports, saying "He is under the care of our athletic training staff. Nothing we have seen changes our diagnosis that he is questionable. He has a third-degree, low basketball sprain."

So who should fans believe — ESPN, with its flock of reporters, or the team? Is it time to panic, with the team's best pass-rusher and the defense's most important player sidelined for the biggest game of the season?

We've been through this situation before, of course, with the one player on the Colts' roster that's more important to the team than Freeney — quarterback Peyton Manning.

Manning had offseason surgery in July to remove an inflamed bursa sac, and was a no-show at training camp and the preseason. However, midway through the team's exhibition schedule, fans were worried about his status for the season, and the National Football Post's Mike Lombardi reported that Manning actually had a second surgery, closer to training camp, to treat an infection in his knee, and it was actually that surgery, not the original procedure, that was keeping the Colts' star off the field.

The Colts didn't comment further, but Lombardi stood by his report and told me in an e-mail that his source was "impeccable." Manning did return for the season opener (and eventually won the 2008 NFL MVP award) but Lombardi's report was eventually proven absolutely correct, as Manning revealed later in the season.

Add in the way the team has handled the injury status of players like Marvin Harrison, Bob Sanders, and Adam Vinatieri over the last few seasons, and its easy to see why one would be more likely to trust the media — even with the dubious "source close to the situation" tag — than an official mouthpiece of the team.

With no clear answers, fans are left to speculate about how severe the injury really is, and if Freeney, who had 13.5 sacks this season, will be able to pursue Drew Brees this Sunay.

It could be possible that both the ESPN report and the team are correct. Monday afternoon, I received an e-mail from Christopher Stulginsky, a physical therapist in Charlotte. He pointed me to an article he wrote about Freeney's injury and treatment.

Though the Colts have insisted in multiple reports that Freeney has a low ankle sprain and not a torn ligament, a team spokesman has classified the injury as a third degree low ankle sprain.

Based on the severity, ankle sprains are classified as one of three grades. A Grade I ankle sprain is classified as a stretching of the ligaments without tearing; Grade II is classified by some tearing and abnormal joint movement; Grade III usually describes complete tearing and severe ankle instability. After injury the area becomes swollen and painful to the touch, normal movement such as walking is very difficult.

The foot and ankle complex is to the body what wheels and tires are to a vehicle. They are the contact with the ground, controlling the body, giving it traction, and create a great deal of fine motor movements decreasing the amount of force translated to the rest of the body.

Just as vehicle performance would be affected by under inflated tires, Freeney's injury, if he attempted to play, would limit the ability to cut and change direction.

As Stulginsky points out, what the Colts are referring to as a grade-3 sprain actually involves torn ligaments, so Shefter is actually correct when he says that Freeney has torn ligaments. Only the doctors know, however, is how severe the tearing of those ligaments are. With media day on Tuesday, this will be the hot topic for the Colts, and both Jim Caldwell and Freeney will be forced to comment on the situation.

HARTZ'S HUNCH: I don't claim to have any medical training, so any more comment and speculation is really just piling on at this point. As a former athlete and active individual, I've seen plenty of sprained ankles of varying severity, as I'm sure most of those reading this have. While these injuries are common in all sports, I've also seen people make rapid recoveries, and with the better part of a week before the game, it's probably too early to write Freeney off for the game.

The Colts will have a treatment plan to get Freeney the best care possible this week. They know how important he is to their defense — Bill Polian has often talked about the two most important parts of the team being an elite quarterback and elite pass-rusher — and there's virtually no question that Freeney is the defense's most important player. Bob Sanders goes down? No problem. Kelvin Hayden? The Colts can adjust. We've seen it time and time again. But with Freeney out, the Colts' whole defense changes.

Can Robert Mathis, Raheem Brock and the rest of the defensive line pick up the slack? It's certainly possible. This team does a lot of things well, but one thing they do especially well is plug in players when another goes down.

But, my "hunch" is we'll see Freeney on the field Sunday. He's a bona fide superstar and true competitor, and if he can walk, he'll play. That may mean he only plays on third downs, or on a snap count. And we don't know how effective he'll be. But I can't believe he won't play until and unless he is on the inactive list on Sunday afternoon.

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