Saturday turned out to be a good day at the Carolina Panthers' training camp for players and spectators alike.
Despite facing their longest scheduled day of workouts in high heat and humidity, the team's enthusiasm was boosted by the return of two key offensive weapons. Running back Jonathan Stewart participated in position drills, and wide receiver Steve Smith caught passes on the side, creating a certain level of excitement around the practice fields for players and fans alike. Both players have been out of team drills since the start of training camp due to recent surgery, and Stewart -- who has never participated in a preseason workout until today -- had been on the PUP list.
Stewart, who has been forced to deal with some variation of a lower extremity injury since he came into the league, was easing his way back into practice by working with the running backs. Collectively, they ran through some agility maneuvers on the side as well as some specific offensive drills. Stewart seemed to move well in the limited time he was on the field, but his presence alone was perhaps the most significant step. His rehab has been deliberate and slow, a measured undertaking by the medical staff to help ensure that once Stewart definitively returns, he stays.
The procedure Stewart underwent this offseason involved a "debridement," or cleaning up of the left Achilles tendon. Stewart suffered from such significant heel pain last year that he was unable to practice the majority of most weeks, yet somehow he managed to play in all 16 games while accumulating more than 1,100 rushing yards in the process. In fact, some of his best performances came late in the season, when the pain was at its worst, presenting the medical staff with a unique challenge. Typically when someone is functioning well, even in the presence of pain, surgery is not the preferred option. After all, there are risks.
But Stewart was not functioning well. He was performing beyond belief considering his discomfort, but he was not able to practice, and his pain was getting worse. That was not an acceptable situation for a running back only two years into his career, and the decision was made to operate. The good news is that the surgery (performed by Dr. Robert Anderson, a leading foot and ankle specialist who is also one of the Panthers' team doctors and who operated on Stewart's right big toe in 2008) has been a resounding success. According to Panthers head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion, all imaging shows excellent healing, and Stewart feels much better than he did this time last year.
Is it perfect? Not yet. Stewart still has some soreness in the heel area, but given the lengthy history of symptoms in that area and the nature of the procedure to address it, that is to be expected. That soreness will improve over time, as will Stewart's confidence in his heel. It is natural for Stewart to be apprehensive given his foot and ankle injury history. Vermillion believes that returning him to practice in steady increments helps address this by creating "small successes." Those small increments of increasing work are less likely to lead to setbacks, making each workout a "success." Those steps are key to Stewart's regaining confidence in his legs. That confidence in turn translates to an ability to focus on running and scoring without worrying about whether it will hurt afterward.
Knowing how successful Stewart has been while in pain makes it all the more exciting to see what he can do when healthy. The amazing tandem of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams (coming off minor offseason surgery to remove a bone spur from his ankle and doing extremely well) may be, well, even more amazing this year.
Smith caught passes on the side Saturday, showing no ill effects from his second left forearm surgery -- to address his second fracture -- in a year. In fact, Smith did so well (read: zero pain) that he was allowed to upgrade to catching passes from the JUGS machine.
Smith told me he feels "good and confident" in how the arm is now on what he calls the "second go-round." He explained this by saying that the arm feels better now at eight weeks post-op (since the second surgery) than it did at 17 weeks after the first surgery. Smith attributes this improvement to feeling "improved stability" from the additional hardware he had implanted in June. He has a visible six-inch scar on his outer forearm from the first surgery. Smith described the location of the first break, the result of a blow from the helmet of New York Giants safety Michael Johnson, as being "in the middle" of the bone, while the second fracture occurred "at the end of the plate" (the typical failure spot in a secondary break of this type). Following the second surgery, a secondary plate was implanted. He demonstrated the flexibility of his wrist and forearm (which was back to normal) and insisted that his trademark stiff-arm will not be affected because his methodical and diligent rehab is helping restore his own confidence in that arm. Smith added that he often carries the ball on the left and is "able to stiff-arm with both arms, so this really doesn't change anything."
Confidence aside, the Panthers' medical staff is taking an extra precaution to help protect that forearm. Vermillion has designed a customized graphite splint for Smith (Vermillion crafted it by casting a mold from Smith's forearm) which will serve as an additional means of protection against direct blows like the one that caused the initial injury. The splint creates a hard shell over the forearm but is unique because it leaves the wrist and hand free so Smith can perform all of his receiver duties with ease. While the splint can't protect against the force of a fall on an outstretched arm (reportedly how Smith suffered the second injury), Vermillion says that the good news is that the bone shows full healing, so there's no reason to expect any increased risk of reinjury.
Smith is expected to be cleared for full contact within days, and there is every reason to expect him in Week 1 against, coincidentally, the New York Giants. Although Smith hasn't been working out with the team to this point, the medical staff has been having him run, run and run some more to keep up his physical conditioning. Now he will have a chance to get some real football practice underway with the quarterbacks and receivers. In addition to getting back in the groove for his position, as a veteran Smith also intends to be a mentor. He is impressed by the gains the young quarterbacks have made so far in training camp and hopes that his return to practice will only add to their growth.
It's safe to say that the return of Smith and Stewart to the practice field has already resulted in some growth. The hopes and expectations of the team, the fans and fantasy owners far and wide were raised a notch today just knowing that these two appear on track for the season opener. It was indeed a good day at Panthers camp.