Loss of Hartings could be major blow

<b>LATROBE -</b> Forget death and taxes, the only constants in the life of Steelers head coach Bill Cowher right now are rain and offensive line problems.

Center Jeff Hartings missed a rain-shortened practice Tuesday afternoon, visiting noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews at his office in Birmingham, Ala. Andrews was the doctor who performed arthroscopic surgery on Hartings last December to repair cartilage damage in his right knee.

"Jeff went through practice (Monday) and it just didn't feel right," said Cowher. "He had yet to see Dr. Andrews since the surgery. We talked last night and he wants to put at ease any feelings he has and let Dr. Andrews look at it.

"For his peace of mind we sent him down to see Dr. Andrews. We'll find out the results of it and go from there."

The results of Andrews' tests may not be something the Steelers or Hartings, who has already missed about half of the team's scheduled practices at training camp, want to hear.

Among the options were continued rest, arthroscopic surgery, or perhaps as a last resort, micro-fracture surgery that would leave him sidelined for the entire season.

Micro-fracture surgery entails drilling holes into the bone in an effort to regenerate cartilage. Tight end Mark Bruener underwent the procedure last season and seems to have made a full recovery. But others - including Arizona defensive end Eric Swann and Carolina receiver Patrick Jeffers - have never fully recovered from the surgery and have not played again in the NFL after undergoing it.

"We probably feel a little like (Hartings) does right now," said Cowher of the situation, "a little unsure."

The loss of Hartings for the season would be a major blow to the Steelers' offensive line. Marvel Smith is moving from the right tackle to left to replace Wayne Gandy, who left as a free agent. Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham are vying for the right tackle position vacated by Smith's move. And right guard Kendall Simmons just returned to practice this week after missing the first two weeks of training camp while dealing with diabetes, a disease he learned he had acquired just a few days before camp began.

Only Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca has been unaffected. When training camp began, the 30-year-old Hartings admitted the knee had bothered him during the off-season and he had began thinking about retirement if it continued to be a problem.

"If my knee feels good, then I'll be able to play pretty long," said Hartings, who is signed through 2006. "If people keep falling on it, or if it continues to deteriorate, then obviously you retire earlier than when you expected or wanted to."

Hartings first injured the knee in the season opener last year at New England when a player fell on it. He then tore cartilage in the knee Oct. 21 against Indianapolis, missing the next two games. He then injured the knee again Nov. 17 at Tennessee and Andrews performed surgery on the knee to repair the torn cartilage, forcing Hartings to miss two more starts.

Hartings said he felt fine during the off-season, but aggravated the injury during a personal workout in May. He is scheduled to earn $3 million this season and counts $4.228 million against the team's salary cap. Making matters worse for the Steelers, backup center Chukky Okobi, who started in Hartings' absence last season, suffered a sprained ankle in Saturday's preseason loss at Detroit and has not practiced since.

That forced the Steelers to place Simmons at center - the only other center in camp is rookie free agent Jimond Pugh - during practice Tuesday. It was a move Simmons struggled with, botching several snaps before heavy rains and lightning forced the practice to be cut short.

"Kendall was getting frustrated because of that," said Cowher. "It was making his blood (sugar) go high."

Dale Lolley

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