SAN DIEGO — When Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis tore his right triceps against the Dallas Cowboys and underwent surgery, the reigning AFC North champions didn't slam the door on his potential return this season.
By placing him on injured reserve-designated for return, the Ravens tellingly bought into the possibility that Lewis could rehab the arm injury and get back on the field sooner than expected.
Now, that's looking like a more realistic possibility. Yahoo! Sports reported that Lewis, 37, could return to practice as soon as Thursday when he's eligible to do so, and is angling toward a return as early as the Ravens' Dec. 16 game against the Denver Broncos. That's the first game Lewis is eligible to return under the NFL collective bargaining agreement procedures governing players on injured reserve-designated.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, when reached by The Baltimore Sun this morning, said that he hasn't spoken to any doctors about Lewis but noted that "Thursday is the first day that he is eligible to return to practice and the Denver game is the first game he's allowed to return to play. That's the protocol."
Newsome would not indicate one way or the other whether Lewis will practice Thursday.
Since the Ravens are 9-2 and in first place in the AFC North, they could elect to wait and have Lewis back on the field in the postseason or one of the final regular-season games next month, such as their Dec. 23 home game against the New York Giants or a Dec. 30 regular-season finale on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lewis has been making steady progress in his rehabilitation, diligently rehabilitating his damaged arm and even using a hyberbaric chamber to accelerate the healing process, according to team officials.
Team officials aren't surprised by Lewis' speedy progress given his work ethic and desire to return.
Per the Yahoo report, which cited a source close to Lewis, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been using platelet-rich plasma therapy to return sooner, a similar approach to the one that former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward used to make it back from a knee injury in time for Super Bowl XLIII.
On Nov. 9, Lewis surprised his teammates and coach John Harbaugh with a visit to practice. Since then, he has been a regular at games and has given pregame speeches to fire up his teammates.
"It's truly great to be back with my teammates," Lewis said in a statement at the time. " I've really missed these guys and the feel of being around the team and in the locker room. I am focused on rehabbing and getting my arm and body as strong as they can be. I will speak in person when I know a little more about my progress. I'm working hard and looking forward to coming back and helping this team. But right now, the focus should be on the guys playing, and I'll be the biggest cheerleader I can be for them."
On Sunday following a dramatic 16-13 overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that Lewis gave an inspirational speech before kickoff to the team. "Ray Lewis had talked about it before the game. He talked about hope, faith and love. Those are three things that bind a football team together and bind a group of people together with each other and with their creator. There's something going on with this football team that is really special and miraculous. I just couldn't be more proud of them as a coach."
Peter Allinson, a physician who specializes in hyperbaric medicine at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital, said there are no studies that establish hyperbaric treatments as a clear method for healing sports injuries. But Allinson said there are an increasing number of anecdotal cases that suggest the treatment might work in sports medicine.
"Theoretically, it should speed healing. It definitely reduces the swelling of damaged tissue," he said of the treatment, which entails entering a pressure chamber that bolsters oxygen levels in the blood. Allinson said he has had success using the treatments to address everything from thermal burns to bone infections such as osteomyelitis.
"Athletic injuries fall more into the gray market for these kinds of treatments," he said. "As much as I would like to say this is a way to treat all sports injuries, I try to be very cautious and not advocate using something unless I know it has a good chance of working."
Allinson said he's also not familiar with any studies that show platelet-rich plasma therapy as a definitive means of treating sports injuries, though he said platelets do promote healthy tissue growth and have been effective in healing wounds.
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Allinson said he would follow Lewis' recovery with interest to see if either method seemed to play a strong factor.
The Ravens have already had one remarkable comeback from an injury this season with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs making it back from a partially torn right Achilles tendon suffered in April and returning for the Ravens' Oct. 21 loss to the Houston Texans where he recorded a sack.
On Sunday, Suggs reiterated what he's said all along: that the team is trying to hold its own until "The General" returns.
"We've been hit with a lot of injuries this year, but [Lewis] keeps telling us to stay the course and that the mission hasn't changed," Suggs said. "So, hold it down until he gets back and that's what we're doing."
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.