Carolina Panthers

What can Panthers, Cam Newton learn from Andrew Luck’s 3-year battle with shoulder?

As quarterback Cam Newton begins his offseason recovery process for what the Carolina Panthers are calling “shoulder soreness,” they say they are going to “exhaust every avenue” to find a way to get him healthy.

Will that include researching how other teams responded to injuries like Newton’s?

Every injury is unique to the player who suffers it, of course, and the Panthers haven’t talked in specifics about Newton’s. Team trainer Ryan Vermillion has declined multiple interview requests through a team spokesman.

But there is a recent example of another quarterback suffering a shoulder injury that turned out to be a lot more nuanced and frustrating than anyone could have guessed — much like Newton’s seems to be.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck suffered a torn labrum in 2015 that ultimately sidelined him for large chunks of the next two seasons, despite surgical repair.

Like Newton, he tried to play through the shoulder injury in 2016.

“(Luck) was taking pain-killing shots before games, he was missing practice a lot. He was spending a lot of time in treatment,” Zak Keefer, a Colts beat writer for the Indianapolis Star who covered Luck’s injury and rehabilitation closely for three years, said in a telephone interview last week. “I mean, players would tell us later that he lived in the treatment room. ... He was in hell, there’s no other way to put it.”

There was some scrutiny on Newton’s deep passing, or lack thereof, after he went 10 weeks with just five completions of 20-plus yards in 17 attempts, according to NFL NextGen Statistics.

In Week 8, Newton began showing up on the Panthers’ weekly injury report as limited with a sore shoulder, just as he did for the entirety of 2017 following surgery. The Panthers put Newton on a “pitch count”, limiting his throws usually on Wednesdays and some Thursdays, and called it his “new normal.”

Luck was consistently listed on the weekly injury report in 2015 and 2016 and on a “pitch count” in practice as well, and his throwing drew concern as he tried to play through his shoulder injury.

And like Newton, substantial time elapsed between Luck’s initial injury and surgery.

Luck didn’t have his surgery until January of 2017 despite the injury occurring in 2015; Newton partially tore his rotator cuff in Week 14 of the 2016 season and had surgery in March of 2017.

Newton said earlier this month he doesn’t even know if he’ll need a second surgery. The answer might be simpler — and maybe more frustrating — than a surgery, however.

At least it was for Luck and the Colts.

Time is of the essence

Newton said he had no idea when he had his operation that the continued rehabilitation and recovery process would be so extended, or continue to be so painful this long afterward.

He did say that his shoulder has gotten neither better nor worse, and that he’s frustrated that he has tried every possible treatment with no change.

Luck’s shoulder injury and surgery were just as frustrating. And the recovery time turned out to be, too.

“The main thing with Andrew’s surgery was, it was a good surgery, everything way repaired, everything was fine physically,” said Keefer, who interviewed several doctors and specialists as he covered Luck’s nearly three-year process.

“You just have to take time to get all of the little muscles working together at the elite level that they’re used to. ... When they’re not working together, which was basically (Luck’s 2017) ... he was going through considerable pain, because those muscles were not working together. So he wanted to get back on the field, the Colts were playing terribly, he wanted to save the season. But there were days that he couldn’t lift his arm after workouts.

“Instead of getting better, he got a lot worse.”

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) celebrates a game-winning touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. The Colts defeated the Giants 28-27. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) Darron Cummings AP

Carolina obviously hopes that Newton’s path to total recovery isn’t as long as Luck’s.

But what can they learn from the decisions that Luck, the training and medical staff, coaches and general managers made throughout his journey?

The importance of time, perhaps.

“They shut him down, he went to the Netherlands and just rehabbed for six months,” Keefer said. “No procedures, no second surgeries or anything like that. But it took that long for him to get those muscles in his shoulder to kind of operate again.

“Maybe that’s something going on with Cam right now, because it sounds like he’s doing everything he can, treatment-wise everything he can, to get that feeling better again. And if he can’t, him playing on it, based on what I know about Andrew’s situation, (was) just making it worse.”

Keefer said the feeling around the Colts now is that Luck would’ve gotten a lot better a lot faster if he didn’t play in 2016.

But Luck wanted to play.

“(Luck) has admitted to me and to others that he lied to himself and to those around him,” Keefer said. “He said he was fine and he wasn’t. ... That cost him big-time in the rehab. And I swear, from my perspective, the reason it took so long for him to get that shoulder right was because he had done so much damage to it, because of the decisions he had made over the last year and a half to play through the pain, and to keep going.”

Current Colts general manager Chris Ballard was hired at the end of 2016, and that brought more of a “long term” mindset into the organization, Keefer said.

“Chris came in and from the beginning he was honest,” Keefer said. “He said, ‘Look. We aren’t going to win just because of Andrew Luck.’ And that’s been a big change, because there are actually good players around him now.

“But No. 2, they wanted to get him right. This was about the rest of his career.”

The Colts went 4-12 in 2017 with Luck sitting out, and Keefer said the players and coaches were miserable.

But it helped, in the long run. With a healthy Luck, the Colts are 9-6 this season, and still mathematically alive to win the AFC South.

“They wanted to give him as much time as he needed,” said Keefer, “and it’s paying off this year.”

A plan beginning to take shape

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, right, Cam Newton, center, and Thomas Davis, left, sand during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

Newton’s journey through his own injury has been unfolding since Week 14 of the 2016 season, but his real recovery might have begun on Sunday, when he was deactivated for the first time since suffering the injury.

His season is over. But the decisions made by Newton, the medical staff and the coaching staff will be more crucial than ever. And the Panthers can’t afford to get it wrong, with Newton entering his ninth season in 2019 and a contract year in 2020.

Head coach Ron Rivera Rivera said Wednesday that the medical staff will likely brainstorm with different surgeons, physical therapists and specialists as they develop a strategy.

But it is clear the plan will focus on the big picture for Newton and the organization.

“I can tell you that our doctors, our training staff along with Cam have really discussed a lot of things, and they’re probably still formulating that,” Rivera said this week. “They’re going to exhaust every avenue in terms of preparing some sort of program, some sort of plan going forward into the postseason (and next) preseason.”

Will it be as drawn-out as Luck’s? It’s likely the Panthers don’t even know that, right now.

But like the Colts eventually did, the Panthers must understand the importance of time, to get Newton right — for good.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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