MIAMI — Don Shula used softer language Thursday but stuck by his belief the New England Patriots' success this season is diminished by the spying scandal that prompted stiff punishment from the NFL in September.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Shula laughed when asked if the Patriots deserve an asterisk if they finish 19-0.

"That's not for me to say," the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach said. "They were penalized, after the first game, wasn't it? They had a No. 1 draft choice taken away, and (coach Bill) Belichick was fined, and the team was fined. ...

"Since then they've been playing within the rules, and their accomplishments should be recognized. But if there was something that happened to diminish what they've accomplished, then that has been noted."

Shula coached the Miami Dolphins to a 17-0 record in 1972, still the NFL's only perfect season. He caused a stir when he first made critical comments regarding the Patriots scandal to the New York Daily News on Monday.

"You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They've got it," Shula told the newspaper. "I guess you got the same thing as putting an asterisk by Barry Bonds' home run record. I guess it will be noted that the Patriots were fined and a No. 1 draft choice was taken away during that year of accomplishment."

However, Shula declined to make the Bonds comparison when asked about it by the AP.

"I don't know enough about Barry Bonds," Shula said.

And Shula backtracked Thursday when discussing the Patriots on ESPN's "Mike and Mike in the Morning."

"If they run the table, and they win all the games, then they are doing it within the rules of the National Football League," Shula told ESPN. "And there shouldn't be any asterisk to it. That would be the accomplishment that they made. It would be the best in all of sports."

Following the Patriots' season opener, the NFL determined the team used a video camera to spy on opposing coaches and steal signals. Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and docked the team $250,000 and a first-round draft pick next year.

The Patriots are 9-0 this season after defeating previously unbeaten Indianapolis last Sunday.

CHIEFS RB IMPROVING: Running back Larry Johnson's injured right foot "has made significant improvement," the Kansas City Chiefs said Thursday.

Johnson, who rushed for more than 1,750 yards each of the past two years, was injured in the fourth quarter last week of Kansas City's 33-22 loss to Green Bay. Coaches have said he would almost certainly not play this Sunday against Denver.

A Denver television station reported earlier this week that Johnson has a broken foot and is out for the year. The Chiefs have insisted all they know is he has a mid-foot sprain and will probably not play this Sunday.

A news release by the Chiefs said Johnson had "less swelling and pain in his injured right foot."

"His status will be re-evaluated again early next week with further exams and tests. His status for this week is doubtful to out," the statement said. It was signed by Carl Peterson, the Chiefs' president and general manager, and team physician Dr. Jon Browne.

Johnson's long-term loss would possibly be crippling to the Chiefs (4-4), who are tied with San Diego atop the AFC West. His 1,958 yards in his first 16 starts exceeded every other running back in league history and he has scored Kansas City's last 36 touchdowns rushing.

BEARS LOSE PRO-BOWLER: The Chicago Bears have lost nine-time Pro Bowl left guard Ruben Brown for the season because of a right shoulder injury that will require surgery.

The team placed Brown on injured reserve Thursday after he missed Wednesday's practice. Terrence Metcalf will take Brown's place in the starting lineup Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

"Ruben has been practicing once a week for the most part, and he's been dealing with some pain," coach Lovie Smith said. "He wasn't able to finish the last football game, but you know, you play with pain always. You don't know the extent until you get to that point where you're told it's not getting better. He needs to get it fixed."

The 13-year veteran started every game during the Bears' 2006 run to the Super Bowl, after missing three games in 2005 with a chest injury and seven games in 2004 because of neck and knee injuries.

THOMAS FEELING 'FINE': Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas may be back in the lineup this week.

Thomas returned to full contact at practice Thursday. He has been bothered by the lingering effects of a concussion and subsequent car accident.

"I've got to be smart," he said. "But I feel fine right now."

Thomas missed two games in September with a concussion. Following the Dolphins' 49-28 loss to New England on Oct. 21, he was involved in an accident on the Florida Turnpike on the way home from the stadium, and he missed Miami's only game since.

Migraines bothered the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker this week, but he declined to discuss his symptoms.

"I really don't want to comment too much," Thomas said with a smile, "because doing that too much gives me a headache."

ALSO: New Orleans Saints sacks leader Brian Young had arthroscopic surgery for left knee swelling and will miss Sunday's home game against the St. Louis Rams... Minnesota rookie wide receiver Sidney Rice didn't practice Thursday because of a hamstring injury.