CLEVELAND Browns center LeCharles Bentley was cleared by his surgeon to return to the playing field yesterday, another major step in his unexpected comeback from a career-threatening knee injury.
I passed it, Bentley said excitedly on the phone from New York. I m good to go.
Bentley had a physical with Dr. Russell Warren, the New York Giants team physician who performed two operations on the two-time Pro Bowler, whose injury was complicated by a staph infection.
Bentley s first season with the Browns ended on the first play of contact in training camp last summer when he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee.
Later, his injury became infected so severely that Bentley said it nearly killed him and doctors had considered amputation of his leg.
Bentley said he will return to Arizona, where he has spent the last several months rehabbing his injury. He plans to be back in Cleveland on Thursday to report for training camp.
Bentley will likely have to pass a team physical before the Browns allow him back on the field.
That really doesn t matter to me, said Bentley, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract with the Browns in March, 2006. The top doctor in the field has told me that I m OK. I ve just got to keep making progress.
The last person to go into my knee says I m OK, and that s good enough for me.
Browns general manager Phil Savage was not immediately available for comment.
Bentley underwent four operations after injuring his knee. The first was to repair the torn tendon and the other three were to fix damage caused by the staph infection, which led to two long hospital stays for the 27-year-old.
He was scheduled to have a fifth procedure on the knee in June, but Bentley said Warren decided against it because of how much progress the 6-foot-2, 310-pounder was making.
Before Bentley called coach Romeo Crennel late last month and told him he planned to report to training camp, the Browns weren t sure if he would ever play for them again. The club has handled Bentley s situation delicately in the last few months, often deferring questions to the player and his representatives.
The Browns signed three rookies to four-year contracts, just not the big three.
The club has not yet reached deals with offensive tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn both first-round picks or cornerback Eric Wright, a second-rounder expected to compete for a starting job.
The team did sign defensive back Brandon McDonald, defensive end Melila Purcell and wide receiver Syndric Steptoe.
The team s rookies began an orientation program yesterday with veterans reporting later in the week. The team s first official training camp practice is Friday.
The Browns are hoping to have both Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick, and Quinn (No. 22) in camp on time. However, with few first-round picks signed, and because agents typically base rookie contracts on previous ones at the same draft spot, Thomas and Quinn both could be out for some time.
Thomas case is unique because the third pick in the past three drafts has been a skill position player wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Braylon Edwards, and quarterback Vince Young and the Browns are reluctant to give a tackle $15 million or more in guaranteed money.
Signing Quinn, too, could be a challenge. The Browns traded two draft picks, including one in the first round next year, to get the former Notre Dame QB, who tumbled in the first round after he was expected to go in the top 10.
Quinn s agent, Tom Condon, will presumably argue that his client is worthy of top 10 money, and that because the Browns had him rated high on their draft board, they should pay him like a top pick.