EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings are down to their final seven days of evaluating the progress of receiver Sidney Rice's surgically-repaired hip. The assumption has long been that Rice would be ready for Sunday's division matchup against the Green Bay Packers, but let's just say the situation grew darker Wednesday.
(We're not in "Theatre of the Absurd" territory, but we're getting there. For now, let's call it "Theatre of Getting Stranger By the Minute.")
Coach Brad Childress admitted that he didn't know if Rice would return at all this season, while Rice posted an angry message on his personal blog to defend his longer-than-expected absence. Even agent Drew Rosenhaus got into the fray, telling ESPN's Adam Schefter that "we've never given any consideration to him not playing this season."
First, the facts: Rice's 21-day practice window closes Nov. 24. At that point, the Vikings must either add him to their 53-man roster or shelve him for the rest of the season.
The team's medical staff cleared Rice for full practice two weeks ago, and it was believed he would be activated as soon as he got his conditioning up to speed. Childress has said the timing of his return is up to Rice, and on consecutive weekends Rice has told the Vikings he does not feel ready to play.
Asked Wednesday if he is confident that Rice would play at some point this season, Childress said: "I don't know. I don't know. I know what I see with my eyes in terms of him practicing, how many snaps he could give you, how many realistic snaps. Would he break down again? Those are all things you'd have to guess on."
What's going on here? Didn't the Vikings suggest in August that Rice would be ready to play by midseason? Why is everyone getting so touchy?
In essence, we have a player in the final year of his contract. The team hasn't offered a new deal, knowing that under the current collective bargaining agreement, he isn't eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2012. The Vikings have sorely missed Rice this season, raising his value to an all-time high, and the dirty fact is Rice would only hurt his value if he plays -- and produces -- at less than 100 percent during the remaining games of this season.
No one has suggested Rice is intentionally dragging his feet, either to jump-start negotiations or portray himself as more injured than he really is. But that aura has hung over the situation ever since Childress publicly put the ball in Rice's court.
It makes sense to listen to how a player says he is feeling. At the same time, however, Rice has been painted into a corner. If he doesn't return this week or next, he'll be portrayed as a player who tapped out. Few NFL players want that moniker.
In a Wednesday blog post titled "A Bunch of Bull," Rice said he was still feeling "significant discomfort" in his hip at the end of last week. He added: "My objective is to get out on the field and play when I'm healthy and it has nothing to do with my contract."
Ominously, Rice also wrote that the still-unspecified surgery he had was "very serious" and that there is "way more" to returning from it than people might realize. He wrote that he hoped to play Sunday against the Packers, but that he will make a decision Saturday based on how he feels after a week of practice.
If you're a conspiracy theorist, you're thinking that at the very least, Rice is feeling cornered and passively pressured to return. Even if you believe everything at face value, you can see Rice is conflicted about how to handle a delicate situation and concerned about the perception the team has created.
I have no idea what to believe at this point. I'm sure this happens often in the NFL, but rarely do you see it being played out in public. I will say this: Any time a player feel compelled to title his latest blog post "A Bunch of Bull," you've got trouble.