BOSTON -- New England Patriots running back Robert Edwards' return to football was in doubt Tuesday after doctors discovered nerve damage in his lower leg while performing surgery on his left knee.
Edwards had the four-hour surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital after injuring himself in a beach flag football game. The rookie from Georgia, who rushed for 1,115 yards last season, will miss the entire 1999 season.
Doctors were able to repair damage done to four knee ligaments, but also found the nerve damage, the team said in a statement.
Dr. Bertram Zarins, the team doctor, said he was "pessimistic" about Edwards returning to football but did not rule it out.
Edwards will undergo a long rehabilitation process. The process will continue for 4-6 weeks, but the recovery of the nerve function will be the biggest hurdle, Zarins said.
"It's going to be very difficult to get stability in that knee again," said Dr. John Richmond, director of sports medicine at New England Medical Center in Boston, prior to the operation.
"You have to worry about both stability and flexibility, and that's huge for a football player, particularly a running back," Richmond told the Boston Herald on Monday.
Edwards went down hard during the pre-Pro Bowl festivities game on Feb. 5. in Honolulu, with his left knee turning one way in the sand, and his 218-pound body the other.
According to doctors, the joint was dislocated, there was artery and nerve damage and three of the four ligaments were torn.
Meanwhile, questions have arisen as to how the injury affects the five-year, $5.75 million contract Edwards signed with the Patriots after he was selected in the first round of last year's NFL draft.
The Boston Globe, citing an unidentified source, said the Patriots still owe Edwards at least $3 million for the remaining four years on his contract.
However, the Globe said, the NFL collective bargaining agreement says that a player's contract is covered for injury only when an injury occurs during a league game, or a team-supervised workout. Edwards, therefore, was not covered when injured in Hawaii.
The Globe also said Edwards and the other rookies in the flag football game signed releases, absolving the NFL from responsibility in case of injuries.
Monday, the Patriots announced the signing of veteran defensive tackle Henry Thomas, a free agent, to a three-year contract.
Terms of the contract were not announced, but the Globe said it was worth more than $7 million.
The 6-foot-2, 277-pound Thomas finished the season with 75 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks.