St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, away from the job since early October as he received treatment for a bacterial infection of a heart valve, has been cleared by doctors to return to coaching on Jan. 1.
But no one should expect that Martz will be back on the sideline for the team's New Year's Day season finale against the Dallas Cowboys -- or, for that matter, that he will ever coach the Rams again.
Dr. Victoria Fraser of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis apprised Rams officials this week that Martz is medically cleared to return to his job in two weeks. And team president John Shaw also confirmed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Martz's agent, Bob LaMonte, phoned him this week to tell him the veteran coach was permitted back on the job on Jan. 1.
On the surface, the medical clearance would technically indicate that Martz could resume the duties he left following an Oct. 9 game against the Seattle Seahawks. From a practical standpoint, however, the news that Martz has all but recovered following more than two months of treatment for a condition known as endocarditis actually figures to hasten his exit from the organization.
Shaw reiterated several times in the past two months that he would not address Martz's future until the coach's medical status was resolved. With that hurdle out of the way, it is expected that the Rams and Martz's representatives will commence negotiations aimed at settling the head coach's contract.
Martz, 54, is under contract through the 2006 season with a salary of $3.25 million. The conventional wisdom is that the Rams will attempt to settle for less than that, essentially ending Martz's six-year tenure as head coach. An expeditious resolution of the contract would permit Martz -- who led the Rams to four playoff berths, two division titles and a Super Bowl XXXVI appearance in his first five seasons as head coach -- to pursue a new position from among the several anticipated openings in the league.
Sources close to both parties have told ESPN.com several times in recent weeks that a negotiated settlement would be the best approach for Martz and the team.
Through the October loss to Seattle, Martz compiled a record of 56-36, including a 2-3 mark this season. The Rams are 3-5 under interim coach Joe Vitt.
When he was originally stricken with endocarditis, Martz felt he would miss only a few weeks. But he then announced on Oct. 24 that, because he needed time to recuperate, he would sit out the balance of the season and return in 2006. Late last month, however, Martz angered Rams officials by suggesting that he hoped to come back to the team for the final few weeks of the 2005 campaign.
At the time, Shaw, who seemed intent on having Martz not return, said: "After speaking to Mike and his doctor several weeks ago, we were led to believe there is no way that he could come back full-time before the end of the season. I would be surprised if he is medically cleared. I'm not going to speculate as to what we would do at that point. But we're all concerned about him getting the sufficient amount of rest he needs to fully recover from this illness."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.