The Carolina Panthers expect quarterback Cam Newton to be ready for training camp following next week’s shoulder surgery – a timeline that one former NFL team physician says sounds realistic based on what he knows of the injury.
The Panthers’ announcement Tuesday that Newton will undergo surgery to fix a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder on March 30 in Charlotte prompted questions about why the team waited until spring to address an injury that bothered Newton the final three games of the season.
Newton was injured in a Week 14 victory over San Diego – apparently when he landed awkwardly on his shoulder after giving chase to the Chargers’ Trovon Reed following an interception. Newton stayed in the game, although the Panthers called six consecutive running plays to start their next offensive series.
Head athletics trainer Ryan Vermillion told the team website the Panthers medical staff hoped rest and rehabilitation would allow the shoulder to heal. But when Newton experienced pain when he began throwing again, team doctor Pat Connor recommended arthroscopic surgery for Newton.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Medical experts say it’s important to make a distinction between a complete rotator cuff tear – in which the tendon is completely detached from the bone – and a partial tear that is marked by a frayed tendon.
David Chao, the San Diego Chargers’ former team doctor, says based on the 12-week recovery timeline laid out by the Panthers, Newton is dealing with the latter.
While a fully torn rotator cuff would require sutures and a longer recovery, Chao said Newton likely will undergo a trimming – or debridement, which is a smoothing of the frayed tendon and often referred to as a cleanup.
“A (full) repair in a throwing athlete is usually closer to six months or so, a trimming can be a three- or four-month timeline for a thrower,” Chao said in a phone interview.
Brian Schulz, an orthopedic surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, agreed that the Panthers’ timeline suggests Newton faces more of a clean-up.
“(Twelve weeks) would be a very fast turnaround if he was getting his cuff fixed, especially in a thrower,” Schulz said.
Second surgery for Newton
This will be the second surgery for Newton since entering the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. In March of 2014, Newton underwent a procedure to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.
He missed OTAs and minicamp and was limited for the start of training camp. He later sustained cracked ribs during an exhibition at New England and missed the regular-season opener at Tampa Bay.
Chao said teams refer to this time of the offseason as the “drop dead” period for surgeries, because it’s often as late as athletes can undergo procedures and be ready for the start of the season.
Because this is an upper-body surgery, Vermillion said Newton will be able to begin conditioning exercises immediately.
“The thing we need to stay away from the most is throwing, but he will start immediately with range of motion and rotator cuff exercises,” Vermillion told Panthers.com. “The positive thing, unlike when he had ankle surgery, is that he will still be able to work on his conditioning, work on his core, work on the rest of his body.”
Vermillion said Newton would start an early throwing program in late June and – assuming he progresses well – will resume throwing with the team around the start of training camp.
The Panthers did not make Vermillion available for additional comment.
Other QBs with similar injuries
Several other quarterbacks have dealt with rotator cuff injuries in recent years. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger played through a partial tear late in the 2011 season that is not believed to have required surgery.
Former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington had rotator cuff surgery in 2005, but returned to play five more seasons while undergoing two additional shoulder surgeries.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick a year after Newton, underwent shoulder surgery in January to fix an issue that had bothered him for two years. The Colts have not revealed the details of Luck’s injury.
After Newton was hurt against San Diego, the Panthers limited his practice and throwing reps the rest of the season. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he tried to get Newton to come out of a Week 17 loss at Tampa Bay, but Newton wanted to stay in the game.
Was that a mistake?
Chao, the ex-Chargers physician, says he doesn’t think the Panthers erred in letting Newton play the final three games.
“I didn’t examine him. I don’t what the situation was. But I would be surprised if they erred,” Chao said. “It’s not unusual to play through with a partial tear. I’m sure they were watching him closely and monitoring the situation. Remember the vast majority of the surgeries in the NFL come in the offseason.”
Schulz, the orthopedic surgeon, and Chao said reinjury is possible because of the nature of Newton’s position.
“They usually come back very well. It’s a very reliable surgery,” Chao said. “The only caveat is it’s his throwing shoulder. If this was his non-throwing shoulder, I would have no worry. But because it’s his throwing shoulder, everyone’s cautious about it.”