In the quiet of the Carolina Panthers’ training room, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis greet each other the same way each morning when they arrive at Bank of America Stadium for another day of rehab and weightlifting.
“We working?” one of them will ask.
The other will nod, and with that, the two veteran linebackers resume the business of getting their bodies back to 100 percent.
Of the offseason issues facing the Panthers, the two biggest involve the health and futures of a pair of team leaders and former first-round draft picks who have been largely removed from public view since September, when they went down with season-ending injuries the first two weeks of the season.
Without Beason and Davis, both of whom signed contract extensions last summer, the Panthers’ defense struggled under first-year coach Ron Rivera. While the offense was a dynamic blend of pass and run led by rookie quarterback Cam Newton, the defense allowed franchise highs in points, yards and passing yards, and was viewed as the reason the 6-10 Panthers didn’t win more games.
Beason and Davis are coming off significant surgeries, although their situations are vastly different. Beason can look around the league and see a number of players who have come back from a torn Achilles to play again.
But no one has ever returned from three ACL surgeries on the same knee, as Davis will attempt to do.
Besides his recovery, there is also the matter of Davis’ contract. The Panthers gave Davis a $7 million signing bonus last summer when they extended him, and would owe him an $8 million bonus if they exercise the club option for the final four years of his contract by March 14.
That is a big financial commitment to make on a player whose first two comebacks from ACL surgeries were short-lived. The popular thinking is the Panthers will cut Davis rather than pay the bonus, and bring him back on a deal with much less guaranteed money.
Neither Davis nor Panthers general manager Marty Hurney would talk specifically about the contract situation.
“I’m pretty confident that something will get worked out,” Davis said in an interview last week. “It’s something that’s not crossing my mind right now. I hired an agent to do a job and he’s going to get it done. And Marty’s going to do his job, and they’ll get that figured out.”
Beason, who tore his left Achilles in Week 1 at Arizona, has no contract uncertainty. The three-time Pro Bowler signed a five-year, $50 million extension last year that made him one of the league’s highest-paid linebackers.
Other than the team’s trainers and Davis’ family, Beason probably has spent more time with Davis than anyone since his surgery five months ago. Beason has seen how hard Davis has worked, and believes he’ll be part of a nucleus that turns the Panthers into a perennial playoff team.
“He’s Thomas Davis already today. We get him back, he’s got something to prove,” Beason said. “It’s just lined up for it to happen. Just so you know.”
Wants to make history
Returning from one ACL reconstruction is an arduous process that can take upwards of a year. Davis has been through it three times since first tearing the ligament in a game at New Orleans on Nov. 8, 2009.
According to the research of Panthers trainer Ryan Vermillion, Davis said, no player has ever come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee.
He intends to be the first.
“Every day I go in I’m looking at it like I’m making history. That’s my goal,” Davis said.
“From now on when you see certain things happen to guys, certain injuries, there will be more teams that will be more willing to give guys opportunities based on a guy they can point out, ‘Look at Thomas Davis down in Carolina. He came back from three to the same knee and he’s able to play, and he’s playing at a high level.’ ”
Davis, who turns 29 next month, received a good report last week from Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedist who performed Davis’ third surgery in September. Unlike Davis’ first two surgeries – when doctors used tendons from Davis’ right leg – Andrews took the patellar tendon from Davis’ left knee to rebuild his right ACL.
“The knee is solid as a rock,” Davis said. “Those were (Andrews’) words.”
Beason watched the Panthers’ Week 2 loss to defending Super Bowl-champion Green Bay from his bed, two days after his surgery to repair the Achilles tendon he ruptured trying to chase down former teammate Jeff King in a season-opening loss at Arizona.
Beason saw Davis’ knee buckle when a defensive lineman fell into the back of his leg. The following day, when an MRI revealed he’d torn the ACL again, Davis called Beason and told him he was done with football.
“It was immediately after it happened again. And knowing the statistics, knowing that no one has ever done it, not really knowing whether the team would even be willing to give me an opportunity after re-injuring your knee for the third time, there’s a lot that goes through your head,” Davis said. “And initially it felt like, OK, this is it. I’ve been through this rehab twice and it didn’t work out.”
But after consulting with his wife, his spiritual adviser and Beason, Davis decided he wanted to try to return. There can’t be many people – in the medical community or elsewhere – more familiar with recovering from an ACL surgery than Davis.
The will to continue
Beason can empathize with Davis – but only to a point.
“It’s tragic. Nothing matters. Ball’s so much a part of you, since you’re a little kid, that when it’s taken away from you, that’s when you can step back and say, ‘Wow, it’s gone,’ ” Beason said. “Going through what I did and then trying to put myself in Thomas’ shoes, where he’s done it three times, it’s no comparison. The strength there is not even close. The will, the tenacity to continue to push forward.”
Having each other to push through the lonely workouts, after many of their teammates cleared out for a couple of weeks after the season, has helped Beason and Davis. One of them usually will bring their breakfast, and the two will start their routine a short time later.
Though their leg exercises are specific to their rehabs, the friends usually do upper-body workouts and agility drills together.
“I know it’s unfortunate that he had to get hurt for us to be in here working out together. But the fact that he did, I think it’s made both of us better,” Davis said. “We’ve been in here competing as much as we possibly can. He’s been pushing me. I’ve been pushing him. I think it’s going to show when we do finally get a chance to come back.”
Taking it slowly
Team orthopedist Robert Anderson, who performed Beason’s surgery, cleared him to resume activities on Jan 1. But both Beason and Davis are taking it slow to avoid any setbacks.
Beason, 27, has graduated from underwater running to treadmill work, but is in no hurry to put on his cleats and test the Achilles at full speed.
“This isn’t really a tough-man injury. This is an injury they have down to a science,” Beason said. “The protocol is the guys that are successful with it take their time.”
Beason is not sure whether the Panthers will want him to participate in a May minicamp, but he is shooting to return for the team’s on-field summer school practices, which last through June.
Beason has spoken with Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who started all 16 games in 2011 after sitting out the final 10 games of the 2010 season after tearing his Achilles. Ryans, whose tackles total fell from 123 in 2009 to 64 last year, told Beason to expect his foot to feel different.
“He just said, ‘Once you get out there, it’s going to feel weird,’ ” Beason said. “Not that it’s unstable. It’s different. It’s not what it used to be. It’s been altered.’ He said, ‘Take your time. It’s slow.’ ”
Winning seasons not enough
Beason believes the pieces are in place for the Panthers to become consistent winners and make a run at their first Super Bowl title. He points to the close losses last year, despite placing a franchise-high 18 players on injured reserve.
The Panthers lost free agent defensive tackle Ron Edwards (torn triceps), receiver David Gettis (ACL) and tight end Gary Barnidge (ankle) before the season started. But seeing two of their top players and defensive captains go down in an 8-day span was the biggest blow to a young team.
“Obviously, they’re excellent players and we certainly missed them last year,” Hurney said. “They’re not only excellent players on the field, but they’re some of the leaders on our team. It’s exciting the thought of getting them back. I know they both have worked extremely hard in their rehab. Trying to get back is extremely important to them. You take it week to week with the rehab. But I know they’re both very positive with where they are right now.”
Beason has said he expects to return as a better player. If Davis is back on the field at all, it would be an accomplishment. He said he looks at the reader comments posted below online stories about his recovery, and is amazed how few people believe he can come back.
“Trust me, I feed off of that,” Davis said. “Don’t write me off until you see what I can do. That’s my mentality and that’s how I’m taking it. I’m not listening to anybody, what they’re saying on the outside. I’m coming in each and every day, putting the work in, getting the job done that I need to get done and I’m moving forward.”
After struggling emotionally and physically in the first few weeks after his injury, Beason said preparations have become fun again. He is expecting big things in 2012.
“It just feels good to know that I’m off the shelf. I’m back a part of the team and I’m in the equation of getting to the top,” Beason said. “That’s what it’s geared for. No more playing for winning seasons or playing to make the playoffs or to go deep in the playoffs. The pieces are in place to win the whole thing, and that’s really how I feel about it. Anything less than at least an appearance (in the Super Bowl) is a weak year.”