In a step that could lead to his reinstatement to the league following a two-year suspension, Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Odell Thurman was cleared by commissioner Roger Goodell on Saturday to begin training and working out again at the team's practice facility.
Thurman, who missed the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons because of repeat violations of the NFL substance abuse policy, filed the paperwork to petition for his reinstatement several weeks ago.
The move by the league on Saturday, while a positive sign, does not guarantee Thurman will be cleared to play again.
"Odell remains on the league's suspended list, and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to meet the conditions for reinstatement," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement released by the team. "If he is reinstated, he will then have to earn the confidence of our management and coaching staff that he is ready to compete for a roster spot as an active member of our team. In the meantime, he is allowed to work out with our strength and conditioning and our training staffs."
While no timetable has been announced by the league regarding Thurman's possible reinstatement, it is believed that Goodell will consider his case sometime next month, likely after the Pro Bowl game. It is expected that Thurman will meet with Goodell before a ruling is made on whether he can resume his career.
"We see it as a positive," Thurman's agent Safarrah Lawson said Saturday
in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "It's an opportunity to get reacclimated
with the team, to work with the strength and conditioning staff in
preparation, hopefully, for minicamp and training camp."
Lawson said Thurman has to continue meeting guidelines from the
league to get reinstated. He thinks that working out with the
Bengals staff will help Thurman, who previously wasn't allowed to be with the
"It will mean a lot to him to be in an environment with
teammates and the supervision of the coaches," Lawson said. "It
will give him more structure. It helps with his recovery."
Thurman was at Paul Brown Stadium late last week to check in with the Bengals' staff. According to the late Saturday afternoon release by the Bengals, Thurman will be working out at the facility in the coming days.
In recent months, Thurman has been working out near his home in Monticello, Ga., and also at the University of Georgia in nearby Athens. It remains to be seen if he can work through the rust of two years of inactivity and return to his previous form.
Because of injuries and Thurman's suspension, linebacker has been a star-crossed position for the Bengals the past two seasons. At one point in 2007, the team was forced to switch defensive end Robert Geathers to outside linebacker because of the shortage of bodies.
Cincinnati coaches, including new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, have discussed the possibility of converting to a 3-4 front in 2008, and that could create an opening for Thurman at inside linebacker.
Lewis had suggested last spring, when it appeared that Thurman would be permitted to return after having missed the 2006 season, that the linebacker would have a chance to win back a spot on the roster, and that the Bengals had not given up on him.
But in July, just weeks after Lawson strongly implied his client was in compliance with his treatment program and would return for camp, the league denied Thurman's application for reinstatement.
"I'm disappointed for Odell, but it is part of life," Lewis said at the time.
A Bengals' starter in 2005, when he led them in tackles as a rookie, was initially suspended for four games in 2006 when he missed a scheduled drug screening. The sanction was subsequently increased to a year after Thurman was arrested on DUI charges Sept. 25, 2006.
Citing confidentiality guidelines, league and team officials declined to say last July why Thurman was not cleared then for reinstatement.
Two men in Monticello, Ga., filed a complaint last spring, alleging Thurman kicked and hit them at a party two days after he settled his drunken driving case in Cincinnati. The men later dropped their complaint, and no charges were filed.
While Goodell weighs his case, Thurman is pursuing a federal employment complaint against the league, claiming he was given an unusually long suspension because he is an alcoholic.
"Odell is doing well," Lawson said. "He's working out, trying to get ready mentally and physically for the season."
Despite missing much of his rookie training camp because of a protracted contract impasse, the 25-year-old Thurman appeared in 15 games in 2005, all as a starter, and registered 148 tackles, one sack, five interceptions, nine passes defensed and four forced fumbles. The former Georgia star, a second-round draft pick in 2005, was a candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors.
Thurman has two years left on his original rookie contract with the Bengals. The deal would pay him $520,000 in 2008 and $615,000 next year. He lost $785,000 in salary during his two-year suspension.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.