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COWART THINKS HIS SEASON'S OVER

The Buffalo Bills have not made it official that middle linebacker Sam Cowart is out for the season, apparently holding out hope that he will return at some point.

However, Cowart is not that optimistic. The Bills' defensive MVP told The Buffalo News on Friday he believes his season is over.

"My whole take on it is the football season is basically September, October and November," Cowart said in his first interview since having surgery Monday to repair a partially torn right Achilles' tendon. "The doctors said it's going to take three months for it to heal. But when a doctor tells you three months, that's really four. After those three months to get healthy, you then have to get back to where you are in football shape and at football speed.

"When I come back, I want to come back full tilt. I don't want people saying, 'Why can't you do this or that?' I either want to be out there where I know I can help the team in all phases or I'd just rather sit down. At this point, I'd rather take my time and heal up. I'm not going to rush back."

Cowart is coming off a year in which he made his first Pro Bowl appearance despite missing the last four games with a high ankle sprain. He entered this season in the best shape of his life and was poised to solidify his status as one of the premier defensive players in the NFL.

Now, he is struggling to accept the fact he won't play again this year.

"I still don't think I've gotten over it yet," Cowart said. "The frustrating thing was I had worked so hard in the offseason to get ready for this year. Knowing the goals I wanted to achieve and how much I wanted to help this team, and now not being able to do those things -- that's what hurts me the most.

"I could have accepted it if it was a two- to four-week injury. That's only one month and I could rebound from that. But to miss a whole year of football? That's tough to deal with."

Cowart's injury couldn't have come at a worse time.

He was supposed to be the centerpiece of coach Gregg Williams' new 4-3 scheme. Now the Bills must try to replace him with Kenyatta Wright and Brandon Spoon, players with a combined one NFL start.

This is also the final year of Cowart's contract, which he signed as a rookie in 1998. With another year like he had in 2000, Cowart could have commanded a mega-deal.

It's uncertain how this injury will affect negotiations with the Bills or any other team, but Cowart feels he still has plenty of bargaining power.

"I'm not in a situation where I have to go out there and prove that I'm worthy of a contract," he said. "Everybody in Western New York and the National Football League know when I'm healthy what I can do. Second of all, if the injury was to occur, I'd rather it happen now instead of later in the season when I wouldn't have enough time to recover. Now, I'll be ready to rock and roll in December, January or whenever I need to be 100 percent."

Cowart suffered a season-ending injury at Florida State when he blew out his knee in the 1996 Orange Bowl. He redshirted that fall but came back the following year to have an All-American campaign before the Bills drafted him in the second round in April 1998.

The fact that Cowart has gone through a year without football before doesn't make it any easier, though.

"I live and die football," he said. "In the offseason, there's only three places I'm at. I'm either at the gym working out two or three hours a day, on the golf course or at home with my little brother or with my son talking football."

What surprised Cowart was he suffered a noncontact injury. He was simply backpedaling in pass coverage when "my calf felt like it exploded."

"The doctors told me on the sidelines it looked like my Achilles, but the pain was in my calf," Cowart said. "All the times I've hit people or been hit or have thrown my body around and I get hurt just backpedaling."

The Bills thought Cowart wouldn't need surgery, but after consulting with various specialists, team physician, John Marzo, repaired the damage Monday.

"The doctor went in because he wasn't sure whether it was torn or how much it was torn or if it would heal on its own," Cowart said. "But given the risks, having surgery was a no-brainer. It's going to be hard watching the game, but we'll have to move on."

So must the Bills defense. Cowart is confident his replacements will do a good job.

"Kenyatta played this defense in college and Brandon is a true 4-3 middle linebacker," Cowart said. "Plus they've got some good guys around them on defense. If they just listen to the calls Jerry (Gray, the Bills' defensive coordinator) gives them, play their gaps and just react, they shouldn't have any problems."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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