Star QBs proving to be quick healers

As training camp nears, the prognosis is excellent for the many elite QBs who suffered serious injuries in 2005, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: July 19, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Eight quarterbacks, the most in at least six years, concluded the 2005 regular season on the NFL's injured reserve list.

Drew Brees of San Diego avoided the dreaded IR sentence only because the injuries to his right labrum and rotator cuff occurred in the season finale. Cincinnati's emerging star, Carson Palmer, a Most Valuable Player candidate after he piloted the Bengals to their first division championship since 1990, tore two ligaments in his left knee in a first-round playoff defeat. And the youngest quarterback ever to claim a Super Bowl title as a starter, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, suffered severe head and facial injuries in a motorcycle accident five weeks ago.

Last year, 114 games (3.6 per franchise) were missed by quarterbacks who were designated as starters at the time they were injured.

Most quarterbacks acknowledge that every season is a year of living dangerously, despite the various rules and precautions implemented by the NFL to protect its highest-profile performers from harm's way. But by any measure, the 2005 campaign, and the months that followed it, ventured way past the typically dangerous and into the extraordinarily disastrous.

"No matter how you look at it," said Brees, who signed with New Orleans as a free agent, "that's a lot of attrition. I mean, quarterbacks get hurt, and it's pretty much seen as part of the game. But the amount of injuries at the position, the number of [significant] surgeries, is really remarkable."

Beyond the impersonal statistical body count, what made the 2005 season probably even more noteworthy was the caliber of quarterbacks who were injured, with seven Pro Bowl performers requiring surgeries of various degrees of difficulty.

Drew Brees
Michael Hebert/WireImage.comDrew Brees is one of several big-name QBs making positive strides after serious injury.

Yet perhaps even more remarkable than the quantity of injuries, and the quality of the infirm, is this reality: All but one of the injured quarterbacks from last season are expected to be ready to go at the outset of training camp. And the only one who might not be completely rehabilitated when camp begins, backup Jay Fiedler of Tampa Bay, should be whole by the regular season.

At least in recent memory, there haven't been so many prominent quarterbacks recovering from injuries at the same time. Quarterbacks are always under the microscope at training camps, but the more appropriate instrument for inspection this summer, it seems, might be an arthroscopic device -- to monitor the progress of all the healing shoulders and knees.

Certainly, the recovery of quarterbacks around the league is a common theme as training camps begin to open, with Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb the first to be scrutinized when selected Eagles veterans report Thursday with the rookie class.

"It's a league where everyone focuses on the quarterbacks anyway, but with all the guys who are coming back [from injuries], it's definitely a big story," said Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, who has seen his own No. 1 quarterback, Rex Grossman, start only four games the last two seasons because of injuries. "There's going to be a lot of attention focused on that."

Thankfully, though, a common denominator seems to be the positive strides that all these quarterbacks have made in their rehabilitations.

The collective recovery is nothing short of miraculous, even allowing for the brilliance of the surgeons and the diligence of the trainers involved in putting the Humpty Dumpty quarterbacks back together again. For instance, noted Birmingham, Ala.-based orthopedic specialist Dr. Jim Andrews repaired the shoulders of Brees and Chad Pennington of the New York Jets, and pieced together the three shredded ligaments in the right knee of the Miami Dolphins' Daunte Culpepper, and all seem to be doing well.

The offseason began with plenty of question marks at quarterback, but it has suddenly evolved into a summer of exclamation points.

Barring unanticipated setbacks, it is now likely that every one of the big-name starters who exited 2005 bent, folded or mutilated -- Palmer, Culpepper, Pennington, Brees, McNabb (hernia), St. Louis' Marc Bulger (shoulder) and Kurt Warner (knee) of Arizona -- will be ready to stand and deliver on the opening day of training camp and certainly in the first week of the season.

Even some of the quarterbacks themselves agreed in the last two weeks that the odds of that happening would have seemed very long, indeed, a few months ago. Add the rapid recovery of Roethlisberger, who strongly suggested last week that he will be ready to participate on the first day of Steelers practices, and the attendance of starting quarterbacks in training camp could be 100 percent.

"Just from a personal standpoint, facing your own [rehabilitation], you know how tough it's going to be," said Brees, who has steadfastly heeded the throwing regimen designed for him by Andrews in the offseason. "But then you multiply it by all the other serious injuries to other [quarterbacks] around the league, and you might figure someone won't be ready on time. But that doesn't seem to be the case, does it? It seems like every report you hear is a positive one, with no one having any setbacks, and that's great."

Actually, it is more like stupendous, especially when one considers the severity of some of the injuries and the timing involved.

It has been only a short six months, for instance, since Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into Palmer's left knee, tearing apart two ligaments and damaging the kneecap. While team officials have remained guarded in their public comments, most in the Cincinnati organization believe Palmer will start the season opener.

Culpepper tore three ligaments in his right knee last October as he scrambled upfield against the Carolina Panthers and was hit by defensive backs Mike Minter and Chris Gamble. There have been times when players were sidelined nine to 12 months by just one torn ligament, and the initial reports for Culpepper were catastrophic. But so nifty was Dr. Andrews' surgical handiwork, and so motivated Culpepper in his rehabilitation that he looked ready to engage in a full-scale scrimmage, if necessary, at last month's minicamp.

Like most other teams with recovering quarterbacks, the Dolphins have made no grand pronouncements about Culpepper's status. But coach Nick Saban used the term "miracle" to describe his new quarterback's progress.

Brees has suggested for much of the spring that he is ahead of schedule. Pennington, who has undergone two rotator-cuff surgeries since February 2005, insisted early in the spring that he was "throwing every route in the playbook." Those who have watched McNabb in offseason workouts report he is moving well. Even Roethlisberger, his face held together by five surgical plates as it heals, said last week he expects to be ready for the start of camp.

Notable is that the Steelers, who seem to share their quarterback's optimistic outlook, have done nothing to augment their depth chart at the position.

There is, of course, one caveat in all of this: None of the damaged quarterbacks has yet taken a snap in a full-contact drill, faced a blitz, had pass-rushers in his face, been forced to scramble full speed out of the pocket, or had to cut loose with a 25-yard laser under duress.

"That's what training camp is for, right?" Culpepper said. "That's the test."

At this point, it appears to be a test all the injured quarterbacks are ready to pass.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.