By Len Pasquarelli
Senior NFL Writer
The Sports Xchange
Last month, the hip injury that sidelined New England standout defensive end Ty Warren for the entire 2010 season was sufficiently rehabilitated to allow him to collect the diploma from Texas A&M he had years ago promised family members he would earn.
Whether the surgically repaired labrum permits the seven-year veteran defender to chase down quarterbacks and ballcarriers to any degree for the Patriots in 2011, though, remains to be seen. In a normal season, Warren would have been through at least a couple minicamps by now, and OTA sessions, and Pats coaches would have been able to ascertain firsthand his progress from surgery.
But this spring has been anything but normal, and teams have been without the benefit of practices to independently gauge injured players' recoveries.
And so the football condition of players recovering from injuries - and more than 200 concluded the 2010 campaign on injured reserve - remains one of the great unknowns in a year in which uncertainty has become the norm.
"You hope you're getting the straight (information), but you just don't really know, and it's frustrating as hell," said one NFC coach whose team had two key starters miss all of 2010 because of injuries. "We're allowed, with injured guys, to monitor some things. But that isn't the same as playing football, is it? So until we get a guy on the field, like, who knows?"
There has been considerable anecdotal information regarding injuries: Warren has suggested he has recovered enough to be a candidate for comeback player of the year honors in 2011. Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis (knee), a potential free agent, has proclaimed himself whole. Pittsburgh offensive tackle Willie Colon, who last spring tore his Achilles and missed the Steelers' entire AFC championship campaign and who might also be unrestricted, claimed he felt good enough to have played in December; of course, the team had placed him on injured reserve by then, and he was ineligible to return. A few agents have taken to Twitter to proclaim clients ready to go, once the season begins.
But saying it and doing it, coaches know, are two different things. Even players seem to know that.
"Everyone is going to be under a microscope when we're playing again," Carolina offensive tackle Jeff Otah, who missed the 2010 season with a knee injury, said. "That's probably even more the case for injured guys."
This is one of the less-publicized paradoxes of the lockout: Even if there is illegal communication between coaches and players during the work stoppage - and while we would all be naive to assume there hasn't been some contact, there have been examples of teams being so spooked by lockout rules they have actually abided by them for the most part - clubs are in the dark about the condition of many of their injured players.
At the same time, the lockout has permitted a few players to whom The Sports Xchange has recently spoken additional time to heal up. One player who missed roughly half of last season has religiously shown up five days a week for rehab work with a personal trainer, since he doesn't have the advantage of working out at his NFC club's facility. Doubtless, there are others like him.
"It's your (livelihood)," said Denver defensive end/linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who missed all of last season because of a pectoral injury. "You have to be ready when all this ends."
There are many facets to the injury/lockout conundrum. Assuming there is a free agency signing period at some point, injured players such as Kris Jenkins, who sat out all of 2010 with a knee injury but is of interest, even at age 32, to some 3-4 teams seeking a nose tackle, will have a limited time to prove themselves. And those teams interested in signing the 10-year veteran will have a condensed evaluation period as well. The analyses of club medical and training staffs will become even more critical.
One player attempting to rehabilitate from a knee problem that landed him on injured reserve for the final month of the season acknowledged that he probably is not ready for a full-speed practice yet. But, said the player, he should be fully rehabilitated by early August. "So," said the player, "in a weird way, the lockout could help me a little."
Of course, the player overlooked the fact his rehabilitation could be supervised by team trainers, not independent ones, if there was no lockout.
Without the extensive offseason program his franchise annually conducts, there is an absence of team feedback on his recovery. And for coaching staffs, that's just another maddening aspect of the lockout.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.