Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason has endured several surgeries over the past two years, and has been around long enough to know the rehabilitation schedules for the usual assortment of football injuries to knees, ankles and shoulders.
So Beason was a little surprised last fall when doctors told him it would be six months before he could even begin running after microfracture surgery on his right knee.
“I was like, ‘Really? I’ve never heard of any rehab like that,’” Beason said. “You do ACL’s, Achilles – anything soft tissue – you get in that eight to 12-week period, you’re moving around pretty good and you’re allowed to start doing some stuff. It’s very different.”
Beason, 28, spent the entire offseason last year recovering from surgery on his left Achilles tendon, and missed all four preseason games in 2012. He played in the first four regular-season games before going on injured reserve with knee and shoulder issues.
Beason brushed off the shoulder surgery as routine. Not so the microfracture surgery, a procedure that involves drilling tiny holes into bone in the knee to promote blood flow and form scar tissue to replace damaged cartilage.
Panthers orthopedist Pat Connor performed the surgery in October. Beason said he was told half the players who undergo the procedure play the rest of their careers with some degree of pain.
Beason’s knee still hurts, but he’s hoping he won’t have to manage the pain forever.
“Microfracture, where it is on the knee is very different, based on how fast you come back or the pain tolerance,” he said. “It’s new for me, uncharted territory. But I’ve grown to be a little smarter with the process. I’m going through it and eventually I’ll feel great.”
Former Panthers running back Stephen Davis was 30 when he underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee in November 2004. Davis was on crutches for six months after the surgery and didn’t begin practicing until the end of training camp the following August.
Davis played in 13 games in 2005, rushing for 550 yards and 12 touchdowns on 180 carries, before being placed on IR with recurring knee problems. Published reports at the time indicated there was swelling in Davis’ surgically repaired right knee, although Davis said last week his left knee was more of an issue.
Davis said Beason has to resist the urge to come back too soon.
“One of the things you’ve got to understand is the importance of staying off of it for a period of time because it’s just like a scar,” Davis said by phone from his home in Columbia. “If you keep irritating a scab, it’ll keep bleeding. So basically what you’ve got to do is let everything heal. Stay off of it, but stay in shape, do cardio and stuff like that, (and) do a lot of pool work.”
When the Panthers reported to Wofford last month, Beason said it was possible he wouldn’t participate in any training camp practices. He reiterated last week that he’s targeting a return for the Week 1 game against Seattle, but did not rule out the possibility of playing in a preseason game.
“I feel comfortable with where we are,” Beason said. “It’s gotten progressively better just since camp started.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has noticed Beason’s progress.
“He’s doing more and more every day. And that’s the exciting thing,” Rivera said. “He comes out early in the morning and does his workouts. He looks better. He looks stronger. So I’m encouraged by that.”
For every example of an NFL player who has successfully returned from microfracture surgery, there seems to be another of a player who was never the same.
Former Panthers running back DeShaun Foster had microfracture surgery in 2002 before playing his first NFL down. After sitting out a year, Foster returned to rush for 429 yards during Carolina’s Super Bowl season of 2003.
Foster had three seasons of at least 850 rushing yards for the Panthers, and ran for 151 yards in a playoff win against the Giants in 2005.
Jets tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. had microfracture surgery in January 2007, but returned to post his best season that fall when he caught 82 passes for 1,160 yards and five touchdowns for Cleveland.
Former Browns defensive tackle Courtney Brown underwent two microfracture surgeries on his left knee. He came back from the first one in 2003, but never played again following the second in 2006.
Beason said he spoke with several players, and heard a mixed response.
“It’s tricky,” he said. “Some guys, they have it and they’re back from it. Other guys, it’s a little longer. A lot of people say that it’s something that you kind of learn to manage more so than being back completely.”
Ralph Gambardella, an orthopedic surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, said heavier athletes tend to have a tougher time coming back from microfracture surgery because they’re putting more weight and pressure on the bone surface.
Basketball players face a challenging recovery because of the jumping their sport requires. Gambardella said a running back returning from microfracture surgery, which is performed arthroscopically, also could struggle because of the stress that cutting puts on the knee.
According to Gambardella, studies show that microfracture is a short-term answer for athletes and non-athletes alike, with the knee repair often breaking down after five years. Despite advances in medical technology and the caution taken in rehab, regenerated cartilage is still not the same as the original tissue.
Gambardella compared it to the difference between crab meat and imitation crab.
“It’s crab, but it doesn’t taste quite the same if you like real crab,” he said.
Beason has become something of an expert on pain thresholds and recovery times. Since signing a $51.5 million contract extension in 2011 that made him the game’s highest-paid middle linebacker, Beason has played in just five games in two seasons.
Beason made 65 consecutive starts – the fourth-longest streak in club history – before tearing his Achilles in a Week 1 loss at Arizona in 2011. He made it through four games last year before the shoulder and knee problems forced him to the sideline.
While he was injured, Beason watched friend and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis come back following three ACL surgeries on his right knee. Beason’s absence allowed Luke Kuechly to slide from outside to middle linebacker, a move that improved the entire defense and helped Kuechly lead the league in tackles and win AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Drafting Kuechly in the first round in 2012 and signing free agent linebacker Chase Blackburn this past offseason were part of the Panthers’ contingency plan in the event injuries and/or age caught up with Davis and Beason.
At the urging of first-year general manager Dave Gettleman, Beason also agreed to restructure his contract. The three-time Pro Bowler took a $4.25 million cut in guaranteed base salary this year, although he can recoup a portion of that through roster bonuses.
Beason said part of the way he’s coped the last two years has been to remind himself there’s always someone dealing with more adversity.
“You lean on the fact that sad times don’t last always. And that’s what makes the good that much sweeter,” he said. “So for me, I know that I’m being tested. But I think it’s going to put me where I need to be for what’s still to come, something that’s going to be great.”
Compounding things for Beason is that when he returns, it will be at a new position. He will flank Kuechly on the weak side, where he’ll have more coverage responsibilities and less freedom to flow to the ball-carrier and make tackles.
Stephen Davis predicts Beason will return at a high level.
“The type of person that Beason is, there should be no doubt that he should come back 100 percent,” Davis said. “He works hard. He’s a proven veteran and knows how to take care of his body. Just watching Thomas Davis go through the things he’s been going through, I’m pretty sure that Beason sees that and is like, ‘This guy can come back from this. I know I can come back from this.’ ”
Blackburn, who joined the Panthers in March after winning two Super Bowl rings with the Giants, said Beason has maintained a good outlook.
“He’s a real positive guy and looking for the bigger picture,” Blackburn said. “He’s a tough rehabber and he’s a good guy to have in our meeting room. He’s always still in the conversations and still watching practice and staying in tune with everything. So when he gets that opportunity to get back on the field, he’ll be ready.”
Beason was noncommittal on when that might be. Based on what he’s heard and learned about microfracture surgery, he’s not going to rush it.
“I want to get out there as soon as possible, but might as well take advantage of the time,” he said. “Trying to make it a permanent comeback from a temporary setback. Know what I mean?”