Knee surgeries slow Faulk's return

Rookie head coach Scott Linehan will convene his first mini-camp with the St. Louis Rams next weekend, but whether he does so with the participation of future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk remains to be seen.

The uncertainty isn't so much about Faulk's plans for the 2006 season as it is the fact the 12-year veteran hasn't yet been cleared by doctors after undergoing offseason arthroscopic surgery on both knees. It marks at least the third time in the last five years that Faulk, 33, and in the twilight of a brilliant career, had some type of repair work done on one or more knee.

This time, the surgery addressed bone fragments and debris in Faulk's knee, a persistent problem for him in recent seasons.

"Nothing serious," Linehan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The older you get, the more time it takes just to kind of get them back to 100 percent. You've got to manage them."

Linehan has spoken to Faulk and believes that the ninth-leading rusher in NFL history will return for a 13th season. Sources close to Faulk also indicated to ESPN.com that he almost certainly will back for at least one more year. But even with the innovative Linehan conjuring up ways to get the ball to Faulk more often than was the case in 2005, his first-ever season as a backup, the seven-time Pro Bowl performer will still be only a role player.

Assuming he returns, Faulk will again play behind starter Steven Jackson, a two-year veteran coming off a 1,046-yard season, and seemingly poised to emerge as a star. That said, Faulk is going to want to get more "touches" than in 2005, when he logged only 65 carries and 44 receptions, despite playing all 16 games.

The 65 carries were a career low for Faulk, as were his 292 rushing yards, and it marked the first time that he failed to score even a single touchdown on the ground. The former San Diego State star, chosen by the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the 1994 draft and then traded to St. Louis in 1999, ranks No. 6 in NFL history in combined net yards, but managed just 583 yards total in 2005. The league's career leader in receiving yards by a running back, Faulk had only 291 yards as a receiver last year. He hasn't registered a 1,000-yard rushing season since 2001.

His diminishing production notwithstanding, Linehan clearly wants Faulk back for 2006. He made that clear at last month's annual league meetings and has reiterated it to the veteran tailback as well. The Rams covered themselves against the possibility of retirement by signing unrestricted free agent tailback Tony Fisher, the Green Bay Packers' onetime third-down back, but the feeling is that Faulk still has a place on the team.

It has been seven years since Faulk established the NFL record for most combined yards from scrimmage in a season, when he rushed for 1,381 yards and added 1,048 receiving yards in 1999, but if his knees can get him through another year, Linehan wants him to be part of his first Rams' squad.

"I still expect him back," Linehan said. "I really do."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.