The news that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is having ankle surgery Wednesday that is expected to sideline him for approximately four months generated a wave of anxiety about the potential consequences. There has been concern expressed about how Newton's absence from spring activities will affect his ability to develop rapport with his new receivers. The question has also been raised, perhaps more importantly, about how this procedure will impact his signature style of play, and whether his mobility will be compromised.
In truth, one could make the case that not only will neither of these things suffer from Newton undergoing surgery at this juncture, but both may actually benefit.
Just to be clear, no one in medicine would suggest that surgery is preferred if rest and rehabilitation resolve the problem. However, when the problem persists and surgery offers a means of improvement, it becomes the best option.
Consider Newton's history with his left ankle. In 2012, he suffered a high ankle sprain late in the season. The rest of the ensuing offseason helped, but it didn't completely eliminate some of the effects that can linger after such an injury, even a mild one, especially when that ankle is stressed by the zigs and zags of a mobile quarterback. In 2013, Newton aggravated the ankle late in the season, sustaining lateral (low) ankle damage at some point -- or even multiple points -- along the way (as reflected by the Charlotte Observer report that ligaments were "stretched out" and will be tightened during surgery).
Everyone knows that NFL players often play through discomfort -- if not some degree of injury -- especially late in the season, and Newton was no different. The accumulated physical stress on his ankle of another season and additional injury undoubtedly left the joint stiff and swollen on a routine basis. The only way to find out if it would resolve with just rest and rehabilitation was to give it an opportunity to do just that.
However, multiple sprains -- especially combination high and low ankle injuries -- can lead to problems with the joint beyond the obvious pain and swelling. The injured ligaments surrounding the joint may heal with scar tissue, yet lose elasticity, leading to instability. The joint can develop spurring of the bones from resultant abnormal stresses, all of which leads to chronic irritation in the ankle. That irritation manifests locally as pain and swelling, but functionally translates into decreased mobility, agility and stability; in other words, it could affect all the qualities necessary to make a quarterback like Newton remain Newton-like. Rest and rehabilitation may provide some form of relief, but it may not be sufficient to overcome the injury.
Thus, surgery becomes an option. Barring the discovery of any major cartilage damage within the joint, the process is fairly straightforward. Clean the joint of any debris that may have accumulated as a result of the wear and tear, including removing any spurs that interfere with normal motion, restore stability to the ankle by, in essence, tightening up the lateral soft tissue support and reinforcing the ligaments, then initiate a rehab plan. The more the range of motion approximates normal, and the more proper the mechanics are within the joint, the better likelihood the ankle responds as it should. Presuming Newton commits to the rehab plan and returns full strength to the ankle, his stability and agility should both improve and his pain should be resolved, meaning he may have an easier time moving nimbly about the field. Look out, NFC foes.
Recovery from surgery such as this -- assuming no surprises are discovered in the process -- can vary, but typically takes 12 to 16 weeks. There is no reason to rush a return to high-impact activity, since the goal is to ensure the joint heals properly. In fact, regaining full motion and strength are far more important in the early phase than full-speed running. While this timeline suggests Newton will miss OTAs and minicamp, it's not as if he won't be present, and he may be able to do a fair amount of work on the side. He may even be cleared for some level of throwing. By the time training camp rolls around, Newton should be able to be a full participant, even if his workload is increased in a gradual manner.
As far as developing rapport with his receivers, there have certainly been other quarterbacks (ahem, Peyton Manning) who have found time outside of structured team activities to gather with receivers and work out independently. Some would argue an enhanced relationship could be constructed under those conditions. If Newton is moving well in four months, he would have plenty of opportunity to do something similar; whether that happens or not is a different matter.
Given that Newton's ankle remained problematic weeks after the season came to a close, the decision to move forward with surgery makes sense. And who knows? By the time the season rolls around, the Panthers may not be the ones who are concerned about Newton's health.
It may be everyone else who has to face him.