Alex Smith hopes to return to action next weekend, but the San Francisco 49ers might be a bit more cautious with their No. 1 overall draft pick.
The bulky brace on the quarterback's right knee was removed Thursday, another bit of progress in his recovery from strained ligaments. Smith was hurt when his cleats got caught in the turf while trying to avoid Washington's LaVar Arrington during a 52-17 loss on Oct. 23.
With decreased swelling and increased mobility allowing him to resume cardiovascular work, Smith is getting eager to return. He hopes to play in the 49ers' road game against Chicago on Nov. 13, but team doctors are aiming for a home game against Seattle on Nov. 20.
"It's hard to put a date on it," said Smith, who has been on the sidelines watching most of the 49ers' practices during his recovery. "A lot is just going to depend on not taking any steps back. It's not just a matter of pain. Even when I walk on it now, it feels different, very loose. It's been very frustrating."
Smith is 23-of-50 for 200 yards, five interceptions and no touchdown passes in his four appearances with San Francisco, including two starts. He signed a six-year, $49.5 million contract before the season.
ROETHLISBERGER HAS SURGERY: Ben Roethlisberger is out for the second time in a month with an injured knee. The Pittsburgh Steelers can only hope they play better without the NFL's top-rated passer than they did during his last absence.
Roethlisberger had arthroscopic surgery Thursday to remove a damaged piece of cartilage from his right knee and will miss Sunday's game at Green Bay and, possibly, the Nov. 13 game against Cleveland. Coach Bill Cowher said the normal recovery time is 10-to-14 days, and the quarterback's status will be evaluated next week.
Cowher said Roethlisberger wanted to keep playing, but the Steelers (5-2) — only a half-game out of the AFC North lead — didn't want to risk losing him for 4-to-6 weeks if the injury worsened and developed into a bone bruise. The team then decided to have the operation done immediately, and the procedure took only 15 minutes.
"He wants to play through everything," Cowher said. "But I feel good that we did what we did and took a proactive approach to it."
Roethlisberger initially hurt the knee during the season opener Sept. 11 against Tennessee, but didn't miss any playing time. Later, he hyperextended his left knee during the final drive of a 24-22 comeback victory in San Diego on Oct. 10, forcing him to sit out a 23-17 overtime loss to Jacksonville in which backup Tommy Maddox had four turnovers — including a game-winning interception return touchdown.
Charlie Batch, a former Lions starter who has thrown only eight passes in four seasons, has since moved ahead of Maddox on the depth chart and will start Sunday. Batch hasn't thrown a pass since the exhibition season and has no extensive playing time since 2001 with Detroit, though he was the Lions' primary starter from 1998-2001.
INJURED OWENS RETURNS TO PRACTICE: Terrell Owens returned to practice Thursday, a day after he was listed as doubtful for Philadelphia's game at Washington on Sunday.
Owens sprained the same ankle he had surgery on last year in last Sunday's loss to Denver. He was upgraded to questionable for the Eagles' matchup against the Redskins.
"He did a nice job," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We limited his reps, but he did a nice job when he was in there."
FAVRE'S FUTURE UNCERTAIN: Brett Favre says he would be reluctant to return to Green Bay next season if Mike Sherman isn't still coaching the Packers. The Packers (1-6) are off to their worst start since 1991, which has led to speculation about Sherman's future.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Favre said Sherman's status would play an important role in his annual decision to keep on playing or to call it a career.
"I don't think there's one specific thing that would make me say yeah or no. It's just a culmination of a lot of different things, that being one of them," Favre said. "Maybe you're on the verge of saying yeah, and then you say, 'You know what, do I really want to sit in meetings and have to learn something all over again?' That could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."
General manager Ted Thompson, who has refused to comment on Sherman's future, was out of his office and didn't immediately return a call from The AP.
Sherman, who signed a two-year, $6.4 million contract extension on Aug. 23 that would take him through 2007, declined comment on Favre's remarks.
MOSS HELD OUT AGAIN: Randy Moss was held out of practice Thursday for the second straight day, and Oakland's star receiver is listed as questionable for Sunday's game at Kansas City. Moss' sore body is still recovering after a hard fall against San Diego on Oct. 16, when he bruised his ribs, strained a groin and bruised his pelvic area. He has played the past two games in a limited role, catching a 22-yard touchdown pass and making three receptions in the Raiders' victory over Buffalo on Oct. 23. Reggie Tongue, a safety signed to the 53-man roster Wednesday to help Oakland's injury-plagued secondary, looks forward to going up against Moss in practice once he's back on the field.