BRONCOS REPORT – EXCLUSIVE CONTENT
Everywhere I go these days, I hear the same thing. I’m certain you’ve heard it to. It is the incessant ranting of know-it-all blowhards, be it through online anonymity or beer-soaked breath at the local sports bar. “Just wait until he gets hit,” they preach. Say it with me: “Manning is one hit away from…”
From there, it generally ranges between retirement and varying degrees of paralysis.
For now, lets forget about the motives of these individuals, certainly all of which fall into one of the following categories: Tebow fans, Steeler fans, fans of our AFC West rivals, Patriots fans, fans of teams Manning turned down during his free agent tour or jaded, simple-minded fools (aka all of the above). Instead, let’s take a look at the reality of the situation and separate fact from fiction. While I’m not claiming to be an orthopedic surgeon and Manning’s doctors have refused to publicly state what I’m about to say (out of professional integrity), the reality is far less dire than many seem to hope.
“His risk is really very low.”
First of all, Manning’s “injury” is a misnomer. It’s more of a situation than an injury in the traditional sense. He didn’t get hurt. It wasn’t the result of a hit or even a series of hits over time. Manning didn’t dislocate, sprain, break, pull, tear, strain or tweak anything. The problem was never painful, and it still isn’t. Peyton Manning suffered from a degenerative nerve issue that was causing weakness in his arm. It could happen whether he played 13 years in the NFL or never picked up a football in his life. The neck just happens to be where the nerve is located, but it’s not a “neck injury” in the way most people imagine.
“His risk really is very low,” says Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr., who has worked with NHL star Sidney Crosby and whose DISC Sports & Spine Center provides medical services for the U.S. Olympic team.
Manning underwent several procedures to alleviate the pressure on the damaged nerve, which was causing weakness in his throwing arm. When those failed to fix the problem, Manning’s surgeon, Dr. Robert Watkins, suggested a new course of action. The troublesome soft disk tissue between two vertebrae, which was pinching the nerve, would be removed. As a result, the vertebrae would be fused together. Nerves, it turns out, are quite delicate and take far longer to heal than some of those other injuries like broken bones or torn ligaments. After the fusion healed (usually 4-6 months), Manning still had to wait for the nerve to regenerate. That process, it turned out, took the entire 2011 NFL season. Dr. Watkins announced on February 2, 2011 that he had cleared Manning to play football again.
“In the field of spine surgery and professional athletes, we have a fairly strong consensus that if you have a one-level cervical fusion, you can recover and go back and safely play,” says Dr. William Tobler, a neurosurgeon at the Mayfield Clinic in Cincinnati who has done four fusions on NFL players, including four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman, all of whom returned to the field. “If the fusion heals, the neck is stable so, presumably, you can take all the hitting and impact.”
“It’s a matter of strength.”
Had the Colts been able to win an additional game or two last year, it likely would have pushed them down the draft order enough to where Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III would be gone already. If that were the case, Peyton would be preparing to finish his career with the Colts and the Broncos would enter 2012 with Tim Tebow (or Brock Osweiler) at quarterback. Instead, the Colts finished the season with a 2-14 record without Manning, which was bad enough to get the #1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The 1st pick in the draft is an exceedingly rare opportunity. The last time the Colts had that high of a pick, they selected none other than Peyton Manning. So it made sense for Indianapolis to use the pick on a quarterback of the future, Andrew Luck. Thus, Peyton Manning was released and eventually signed with the Broncos. (By the way, the Broncos have never had the #1 overall draft pick in their history. The closest was last year’s #2 overall, where they selected Von Miller.)
“It will only get better from here with time.”
“If I was a team, I’d ask, ‘Did (the fusion) heal? Do you have a CAT scan that showed it healed? Is the rest of neck in pretty good shape?’” Bray asked. “If those two answers are yes, then it gets down to, ‘OK, get out on the field and show me you can perform,’ because it will only get better from here with time.”
“Nerves are just wires and the muscle is where the wire plugs into,” according to Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph of Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University, team doctors for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox. “Obviously he’s got all the intelligence and the skill set. It’s a matter of strength. Can he get his arm to do what his mind and eyes want him to do?”
That brings us to the present, as Manning and the Broncos continue OTA’s and prepare for the team’s mandatory minicamp to start on June 12th. Asked how he thought Manning looked last week, Broncos Head Coach John Fox said: “He’s getting better every day. His progress has been outstanding. We’re excited where he is. I think he’s pretty good right now, and we think he’ll get better.”
The issue was never about a “neck injury” or being “one hit away” from anything (at least, no more than any other player in the NFL). It was simply a matter of losing arm strength and the process of gaining it back. The Colts couldn’t afford to wait. But for the Broncos, Broncos fans and Peyton Manning fans everywhere, the wait is almost over.