Slowly and cautiously, sometimes awkwardly, Sammy Watkins is taking his first major steps toward returning to action for the Buffalo Bills.
Exactly when that will be is still a mystery.
The Bills' top receiver insists he doesn't feel pressured to take the field for Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, even though the Bills can't afford a loss and their passing game ranks last in the NFL and their second-best receiver, Robert Woods, is not practicing because of a knee injury.
Watkins' only concern is that the chronic issues with his surgically repaired left foot, which landed him on the injured-reserve list eight weeks ago, have been resolved to the point where he can play without experiencing more problems.
"There’s always pressure on us athletes, but not to go out on the field and not feel good. I’m not going to do that," he said Wednesday. "But if I feel good, of course, I’m going to go out there and play and I’m going to do my best. But it’s really about being healthy. If I’m healthy enough to play and they think I’m healthy, then I’m going to go out there. I’m not going to go out there unhealthy."
On Wednesday, he was cleared to practice. Under the guidance of the team's training staff, he pushed himself as far as he was allowed to go. That, according to Watkins, was "20-something plays."
Afterward, Watkins and the trainers planned to study video of how he moved in practice.
"I ran" the plays "pretty fast, moving at a high rate of speed," Watkins said. "So I just got to let the trainers really do their job and see what they see, watch film, see how I’m cutting and see how I’m planting."
Watkins made it sound as if the decision of whether he would play rested mainly with the trainers. "They got to see if I’m babying the injury or whatever, if I’m not," he said. "I’ve got to let them deal with that and see what I’m going to do."
In one breath, Watkins says he thinks he "should be fine." Yet, when asked if he thought he could play if the Bills had a game Thursday, Watkins replied, "That's a good question. Probably not."
He admits that getting reacquainted with playing football after two months away from the game is a process. Running routes and catching passes are things he has done for a good portion of his life.
But there is a certain amount of reeducating he must do.
"Right now, I’m trying to get acclimated to route-running because eight weeks is a long time out of football, so it’s really about the fundamentals," Watkins said. "Watching the ball, that’s what I had to do today. I wasn’t watching the ball the first couple of plays, so I had to go back out like, 'Hey, I got to watch the ball.' So, it’s really about getting back to football shape, getting in shape and getting on the same page as the wide receivers and the quarterback.
"Right now, I'm not feeling normal out there. But I think" in "two or three days I’ll start feeling back to myself and moving and running around."
Still, he was non-committal about whether he thought he would feel good enough to play Sunday. Perhaps Watkins learned his lesson from declaring via a Twitter post that, after developing soreness in the foot during the Bills' loss against the New York Jets in the second week of the season and not practicing all week before the Week 3 game against Arizona, he was "Ready to go out there and compete at the highest level" against the Cardinals.
The post was removed, Watkins was inactive for the Arizona game, and then he was placed on IR.
"Obviously, we're encouraged that he has been cleared to participate," coach Rex Ryan said. "I think that's a good sign. He feels good, so we'll see how it goes. We're not going to run him until his tongue's hanging out. We'll be smart with him in how many plays we do. We'll limit him" Wednesday, "but then we'll see how he progresses.
"Is there a chance that he could play? I hope so."
Watkins acknowledged that the training staff is doing its part to help protect the receiver from himself.
"I’m a guy that has to do everything full-speed and now I learned like, 'Hey, man, you don’t have to do it full-speed, just go out there, run it pretty fast but you don’t have to be all-out like game-day every rep," he said. "The plays I thought I need to run full-speed, I did. The plays I didn’t think I needed to run full-speed, I didn’t."
Ryan sounded as if he, too, was aboard with the idea of being cautious with putting Watkins on the field, despite what's at stake and the struggles of the Bills' passing game.
"I think the health of Sammy's the big question, whether Robert's healthy or not," the coach said. "Make sure Sammy's ready to go before he's out there. As much as we want him, obviously he's a difference-maker when he's out there, so I get it."