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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Shoulder expert on Sanchez: Relax, fans

Mark Sanchez throws a pass against the Pittsburgh

Mark Sanchez throws a pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 19, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Credit: Getty Images

On Wednesday, the news that Mark Sanchez was limited in practice because of a sore shoulder was a minor footnote to the big story of the day, namely Rex Ryan's reported foot fetish. But yesterday, there were exactly zero questions about the racy subject.

Reason: When concerns arise about the state of your franchise quarterback's throwing shoulder, all other issues lose importance, especially the ones that don't have a direct bearing on the games.

So when Ryan told reporters Thursday that he misspoke the day before when he said Sanchez could have played if the game had been scheduled for Wednesday, and when he downgraded his chances of playing Sunday from 99 to 80 percent, eyebrows were raised.

And when Ryan suggested that he doesn't "think it's essential that Sanchez plays," well, the reaction went from "hmmm" to "whoa."

"If this young man isn't ready to go or protect himself, or if he's not ready to zip the ball down the field, this is not a defense you want to [play against],'' Ryan said. "I thought without question he would play, but if not, we'll move on and go with [Mark] Brunell. I don't think it's essential that [Sanchez] plays. You would like him to play, but I don't think it's essential."

Will Sanchez play? It will come down to a game-time decision, Ryan said. But according to two of Sanchez's closest associates, the quarterback has every intention of playing. "From everything he tells me," one source said, "he's playing. Nothing he's said leads me to believe otherwise." Said the other source: "He plans on playing Sunday."

Of course, nothing is definite, not when it comes to a shoulder problem. Sanchez reportedly has a slight cartilage tear, prompting the Jets to limit his participation in practice and give more first-team reps to Brunell, the team's 40-year-old backup. But according to shoulder specialist Dr. Craig Levitz of Oceanside, Sanchez has a condition that is common in many quarterbacks, and there is no immediate cause for worry.

"When they use the term cartilage in the shoulder, some people use that interchangeably with a labral tear," said Levitz, director of the South Nassau Center for Cartilage Repair. "The labrum is actually the cartilage attachment in the shoulder, so most likely he has a small tear in his labrum. That sounds horrible, but partial tears in the shoulder are generally well tolerated, and then can generally be rehabbed."

Levitz said the condition is extremely common. "If you MRI 100 asymptomatic athletes, probably 30 percent would have small cartilage tears in the shoulder," he said. "The fact that he has it, while it's obviously a cause for concern, it's not Chad Pennington all over again."

While with the Jets, Pennington suffered two shoulder injuries, both of which required surgery. He suffered similar injuries twice more with the Dolphins, most recently this season, and is likely to retire.

Levitz said Sanchez might opt for surgery in the offseason as a preventive measure.

"My impression is that Sanchez will probably make it through this year without a great deal of problem, and it should not affect him that much," Levitz said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if he chooses to have surgery in the offseason to prevent [the tear] from progressing, because these injuries tend to progress. It's not a doom-and-gloom prognosis, and I'd be shocked if he didn't finish the season, and I'd be shocked if it affected him to a great degree."

The Jets might be handling Sanchez with extra caution as a hedge against what happened to Pennington. After all, Pennington initially suffered a small tear in his labrum in the 2005 season, but the tear worsened to the point that he needed to have both the labrum and rotator cuff surgically repaired. He has had shoulder problems ever since.

Should Sanchez play Sunday? The Jets don't have to beat the Bears to make the playoffs. Then again, do they want to risk an all-or-nothing game the next week against the Bills? Tough call.

"When you think, 'This is our 24-year-old quarterback of the future; do we want to send him out there and risk further injury?' " Levitz said, "that's why it's day-to-day. It's not like the tear will heal, but if the inflammation goes down and the strength is there and that's acceptable, at that point they'd let him play."

Doc Levitz's advice to Jets fans: Don't panic. At least not yet.

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