DeMarcus Ware is no stranger to pain, but he is a stranger to sitting out games.
In his 11-year career, out of a potential 167 games, the outside linebacker has only missed five complete games, three of those in 2013 when he injured his elbow while with the Cowboys.
Ware first left a game in Week 5 against the Raiders and then missed Week 6 in the matchup with the Browns. Thanks in part to a bye during Week7, the eight-time Pro Bowler was full-strength for the Packers game on Nov. 1.
But a flare-up with his spasms against the Colts rendered the fierce edge rusher to the sidelines at the end of the second quarter and for the entire second half of the game.
Ware did not practice all last week, and on Friday the Broncos ruled him out, after "taking it day by day" to see where the 33-year-old linebacker stood each day.
"He didn't do any further damage. He basically had a setback kind of like he did a few weeks ago. Is that going to be week? Is that going to be two weeks? I think it's a day-to-day thing," Coach Gary Kubiak said last week. Ware did not practice the rest of the week.
Yesterday Kubiak noted that Ware is basically in the training room doing everything he can to get better for whenever he can.
"I think he's improved," Kubiak said after talking to head athletic trainer Steve Antonopoulos. "I think there's some progress there. When will we start doing some field work? Maybe by the end of the week. I don't want to speak out of turn, but that's something that we talked about last week was maybe by the end of this week he starts to do some of that."
Dr. Todd Albert, an orthopedic surgeon-in-chief at Hospital for Special Surgery who specializes in back and spine injuries, told Mile High Report that back spasms are a tricky injury because they are the result of any number of things, many of which don't show up on an MRI.
"The MRI could be completely clean yet it's paralyzing to the athlete," Albert said, noting that for a football player like Ware, the danger of playing with the pain isn't so much a risk of greater injury but rather of not being able to be effective in the game.
For a player whose job it is to sprint off the line and get to the quarterback, paralyzing pain would certainly be a problem.
Albert - a 20-year orthopedic surgeon currently with HSS, which works with the New York Giants as well as the New York Rangers - said back spasms can completely go away or they can flare up again and again. A lot of it depends on cardiovascular conditioning as well as having abdominal and spinal extensor muscles that are "like rocks."
The back specialist suspects Ware is in very good physical condition, so the day-to-day monitoring is likely to continue all season.
"It's true he could get completely better," Albert said. "It's also true he could bandage himself together all week for the rest of the season."
The good news, Albert added, is that this kind of pain is very common among people between age 20 and 60, so it is not necessarily a "football injury." It's also common that most people get better on their own with rest, Albert said. Treatments are just a nice benefit to ease the pain.
"Ware's problem will be the time crunch," the specialist said, noting the six weeks left of the regular season. His recommendation would be rest with a gradual return so the muscles get strong again before being taxed.
"Guys like Ware are doing a lot of fast-twitch muscle conditioning," Albert said, "and my guess is that the startup - going from his stance to exploding off the line - is what's invoking the pain. Not the hitting."
That should be good news for the Broncos who have certainly enjoyed Ware's production this season - 6.5 sacks, 14 tackles and one forced fumble. The one bright spot on the injury report is that backup linebacker Shane Ray (MCL injury) has returned to practice and game time. Shaquil Barrett will also be there to handle the sack duty from the outside.
Kubiak said early last week that Ware's injury was definitely a concern, but he added midweek that Ware was looking good. However, the linebacker has not practiced for a week and a half.
"He has a way of getting himself there a lot quicker than people think," Kubiak said of Ware's recovery. "I think that we're very fortunate. We just have to make sure that we get him good and well before we bring him back, and hopefully he's there for the long haul."