Owens' toe injury cause for concern

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Some sports fans snicker when they hear that a player has been sidelined with a toe injury.

He can't play because one of his piggies has an owie! What a wimp!

Truth of the matter is, toe problems -- like the one keeping Buffalo Bills receiver Terrell Owens out of his second straight preseason game Saturday -- can be serious.

"It can end your career," ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell said.

A bum toe ended Hall of Fame intimidator Jack Lambert's career at 32. He had been named All-Pro five straight seasons when he got hurt. Toe injuries also have shelved such stars as Deion Sanders, Eddie George, Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Owens aggravated his toe during the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 9 and hasn't taken part in a full practice since. He lightly worked out for about 20 minutes Monday but informed the team it was uncomfortable to stand.

"He runs a lot," Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert said Thursday. "He has to make cuts on that thing, sharp cuts.

"For a lineman, working in short space, it's not going to be as much of a problem. But a receiver or a running back, you've got to make jump cuts and sharp cuts. It's a huge injury."

Owens has been hampered by toe problems in the past.

Turf toe bothered Owens in 2000 with the San Francisco 49ers. He missed one game and couldn't start in another. He was 26 years old then. He's 35 now.

"If it's the same toe," Bell said, "that, to me, makes the picture a little more grim."

Bell, a physical therapist who specializes in athletes and performing artists, explained why an itty-bitty digit can practically immobilize an athletic specimen.

"When your body weight is moving forward, there is a point in time when basically all of your body weight is concentrated over that main joint," Bell said. "If you could do a still frame of a guy running, and you got him right at push-off, you'd see the majority of the body weight is through that big toe.

"You have body weight connecting with the ground. You've got force going through a very tiny surface area of a couple centimeters. That's what places so much stress on the joint."

A bad toe severely limits balance, sprinting, stopping, cutting and jumping abilities. NFL receivers do all of the above actions every couple minutes. Oftentimes they must pull off combinations of those movements on any given play.

"Running is bad," Bell said. "Receivers have to make sharp cuts, pivot off the toe, sudden decelerations. T.O. is known for this sharp route running.

"Think of how much impact there is when you're running full speed and then have to stop on a dime. When your foot plants to stop your body weight from moving forward, there's a lot of sheering that happens at that moment.

"Then there's pivoting and twisting of tissues that run in a straight line. For jumping, you have to push off through the toe to get airborne. Then they have to land on it."

Few options exist when it comes to fortifying the area. Toes can't be put in casts or braces.

"They can tape it, throw a pad underneath it, try to give it some stability, but you can't restrict movement," Bell said. "You can't work without it and you can't immobilize it because you can't propel yourself forward if you don't have movement in the toe.

"It's challenging to play with."