One year after fracturing and dislocating his right hip during training camp, Pitta underwent surgery after dislocating and fracturing the same hip again during a 23-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Pitta will be placed on injured reserve, officially ending his season.
Pitta remains in Cleveland as he recuperates from the procedure. Pitta was treated at University Hospitals in Cleveland with Ravens team doctor Leigh Ann Curl consulting with his surgeon.
“Unfortunately, his career is in jeopardy,” said Dr. David Chao, a former San Diego Chargers team doctor and orthopedic surgical specialist who doesn’t treat Pitta. “Even if Dennis comes back and plays, he would be at risk for a third dislocation.
“Is it worth it for him to run, jump and work out that hard and cause arthritis and increase his chances of needing a hip replacement early in life a la [former Oakland Raiders running back] Bo Jackson? That’s for him to decide. With this information, there’s a very real possibility that he could be done.”
Pitta was injured in the second quarter against the Browns, going down without being touched. He was carted off the field and was in obvious pain, covering his face as he headed inside to the locker room to be examined.
"A joint that comes out easily is a joint that will come out again without trauma. That’s not being scientific, it’s just factual," Chao said. "The answer from a player is always, ‘I want to go back and play.’ I know he’ll want to play because he’s a successful athlete, but is it more important to chase more football games or more important to play catch with little Johnny one day?”
The fact that Pitta was injured without being hit is another major cause for concern. Jackson’s career ended prematurely because of avascular necrosis that affected the healing process because of a lack of blood in the hip joint. He eventually had hip replacement surgery.
“For all of us who don’t know anything about why those things happen, I’m sure a hip expert can probably explain to us how it could happen,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He caught the ball, he basically twisted back, and you could see just with one little pivot right there, you could see all of a sudden he didn’t have his right leg anymore and stumbled to the ground. I don't know how that can happen.”
Pitta, 29, signed a five-year, $32 million contract in March that included $16 million guaranteed with an $11 million signing bonus. Pitta is due a $1 million base salary while he’s on injured reserve. His $4 million base salary in 2015 is fully guaranteed in the event of an injury.
Pitta had 16 receptions for 125 yards this season and no touchdowns. In five NFL seasons, the 2010 fourth-round draft pick from Brigham Young has caught 138 passes for 1,369 yards and 11 touchdowns, including a career-high 61 receptions for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 during the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl XLVII championship.
Whether Pitta will catch another pass in an NFL game remains up in the air until he can begin rehabilitating his surgically-repaired hip and attempt to regain athletic function.
“That's kind of devastating,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “Dennis isn't just our teammate, he's a really close friend of ours. To see him go down like that, it hurts. We wish him a speedy recovery. We have to push forward, and other guys have to make the most of their opportunities.”
Last year, Pitta was injured during training camp when he landed awkwardly while attempting to make a catch in the back of the end zone and collided with strong safety James Ihedigbo.
Now, Pitta is dealing with the same injury again. It’s a blow to the Ravens’ offense, robbing it of one of its most reliable and productive downfield targets.
“It's going to be rough over the next day or two, just thinking about it or talking to him and seeing how he feels about it,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who is Pitta’s closest friend on the team. “I know last time he got hurt, he was pretty optimistic about everything. It'll be interesting to talk to him. It's tough.”
When Pitta underwent surgery on his hip last year, doctors told the 2010 fourth-round draft pick that the chance of recurrence was extremely low because of the rarity of the injury and how well the procedure and rehabilitation went.
“I don’t know the ramifications of that long-term,” Harbaugh said. “Specialists, as you said, will probably give us some information on that, so I really don’t know. I’m going to be really hopeful for Dennis’ return, but we’ll worry about that in the coming weeks.”
With Pitta sustaining this injury, the Ravens will turn toward two-time Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels, as well as rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore. They could also utilize Juszczyk, a hybrid former H-back and tight end at Harvard who caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown against the Browns, in a tight end role.
“Those guys are going to be a big, huge part of it,” Harbaugh said. “They're here, so we do have really good players. And the fact that we have Kyle, who can swing in there and play different positions, is a huge plus for us. And you’ve got to adjust your offense. We’re going to play our good players.
“Who goes on the field is going to depend on who our good players are, and how our offensive coaches decide to attack. But we’re looking for another tight end. We’ve been working on that upstairs.”