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Dr. Flynn’s Mailbag: Taking a look at the situation with Martellus Bennett’s shoulder

(Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Note: Martellus Bennett has given his side of this story. Post here

Martellus Bennett was released by the Green Bay Packers this week for “Failure to Disclose Physical Condition.” Jonathan Kraft addressed the uncommon designation back in 2012 when the Patriots cut defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene for failure to disclose a knee injury after paying him an almost $4 million signing bonus:

“So the idea is you need to disclose everything that is going on with your personal situation and then you sign it, and it's a legal document. And if somebody isn't completely up front with everything that's going on there and eventually that leads to them not being able to perform, you have a situation where it's probably best to part ways. And the NFL, just in the last week or two, created a new designation which is released I think is failure to disclose, or failure to disclose conditions, something like that. And I think this situation falls into that category. And it's one thing if a player comes in, performs as he asked to do and develops a serious injury in the line of duty, that happens all the time, and you see your obligation through. But in cases where somebody may not have been completely accurate up front, I think it leads to a different situation, and this probably falls into that category more than the other one."

It was clear from the Packers’ designation that Bennett is dealing with a significant shoulder injury, the real question is, how bad is it? We got our answer today when Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that Bennett was released by the Packers because of a rotator cuff tear with additional reports of a labrum tear. You have to understand a little bit of shoulder anatomy to understand the challenges of playing with such an injury.

The rotator cuff is made up of four small muscles and tendons that wrap around the joint. Their main jobs are to rotate the shoulder and hold the arm bone (humerus) “in” the socket (glenoid). I will be honest with you — the term “rotator cuff” is super confusing. I know doctors who don’t understand what the rotator cuff actually is. If you watch this less than 60-second video from my blog, I promise you’ll have a better understanding!

Whether or not Bennett can play through his rotator cuff tear depends on a lot of factors. In general, rotator cuff tears do not heal on their own and, if the tear is completely through the tendon, they require surgery. Given that the Packers abruptly released him, my suspicion is that Bennett’s tear is a significant one and surgery was/is being considered. If it was minor, they would likely feel confident he could play through it and possibly revisit surgery in the offseason. This is my medical brain talking. The problem is, you can’t just approach Bennett with a medical brain. There are a lot of other factors that come into play with this guy. In New England last year, Bennett was a beast. He played through ankle injuries that many thought would require offseason surgery. He returned to a game after sustaining a high ankle sprain and scored three touchdowns. In college, he played through what was described as a significant shoulder separation and he dealt with shoulder issues for much of last season.

So why is this injury different? Is it the actual injury or a result of dissatisfaction with system he was playing in? I don’t know, but I do think we have to at least consider the possibility that Bennett’s release was more due to change in the super-Herculean effort that we saw in New England than a dramatic change in actual injury. I realize this doesn’t really jive with the failure to disclose designation, but is there a chance that Bennett is contemplating retirement and got sick of playing through pain in a system devoid of a star quarterback?

All of these questions are important, but whether or not #88 will contribute to this year’s Patriot team really comes down to the following. If Bennett has a recent, massive rotator cuff tear where he can’t move his shoulder because the tendons simply are no longer attached, immediate surgery and IR is the only option. If the rotator cuff tear only involves a part of a tendon and the gritty tight end wants to try to play through it, there is a good possibility he could make it through the remainder of the season without a major issue. However, I suspect that the actual injury is somewhere in the middle. It’s probably a big enough tear that immediate surgery is an option. Given that the Packers are claiming it to be a pre-existing condition, Bennett’s rotator cuff tear is likely not new and therefore something he has already been playing through for at least a few months. I don’t expect that will change now that he’s with the Patriots. He was spotted out at practice this morning, indicating that he has passed his team physical and is cleared to play.

Looks like the tight end once again has asked himself….What would Luke Cage do?