Connor on comeback trail

CHARLOTTE - It took Panthers linebacker Dan Connor a little bit of time to come to terms with his second major injury in his three seasons as a pro.

Once Connor overcame his initial disappointment, however, he attacked his rehabilitation much like he attacks opposing running backs.

"It was tough. The first week after I got hurt, that was the hardest part," Connor said. "At that point, though, I realized, 'It's time to start working again, to start building for next season.'

"I pretty much haven't taken a day off since. I'm excited for this upcoming season."

Connor, who missed half of the 2010 season with a bone chip in his left hip, began running last week and said Tuesday that he hoped to be at full strength by mid-March, when the Panthers traditionally begin their offseason strength and conditioning program.

"It was slow for the first six weeks, until the bone healed, but now it's flying," said Connor, who missed all but three games of his rookie season in 2008 with a torn anterior crucriate ligament in his left knee. "This is a rare injury, so it's kind of hard to tell what qualifies as being ahead of schedule, but it's going fast compared to when I tore my ACL.

"It feels strong, feels real good right now. It's kind of at the point where each day I'm taking a bigger step."

Connor started the first eight games of the season at middle linebacker – the first starts of his NFL career – before suffering the hip injury that resulted in surgery and his second trip to injured reserve. At the time of the injury, Connor ranked third on the team with 60 tackles, a total that still rated eighth at the end of the season.

When Connor first got hurt, he didn't think it had anything to do with his hip. He thought he had injured his hamstring in the Week 8 game at the St. Louis Rams, but he found out differently when he tried to return for the Week 9 game against the New Orleans Saints – his last game of the season.

"In the Rams game, I pulled a muscle – kind of a weird thing – on a special teams play," Connor said. "I thought I had pulled the high part of my hamstring, so I treated it all week and felt pretty good, I thought.

"But then I went into the Saints game, and I remember one play where I came up and hit a guy right in the hole. Usually, I'll drive him back and make a tackle, but I didn't have any hip strength. At that point, I knew it was something pretty serious. They X-rayed it, and it was a little chip right off the back almost of my pelvis. It was tough news to get."

One of the toughest parts was watching his teammates struggle through a difficult season, powerless to do anything about it. The Panthers, however, will get to wipe the slate clean in 2011, and Connor can't wait to be a part of it.

"It was really hard. I wanted to be out there, contributing and fighting with them," he said. "It was a tough season on a lot of different levels, but I think that's what is going to make this next season real exciting, coming off such a struggle."

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