Carolina Panthers

Hackett works to shed 'injury prone' tag

CHARLOTTE -- The question had hardly been tossed his way when D.J. Hackett caught it and practically spiked it.

"It feels good," the Carolina Panthers' wide receiver said Wednesday, grinning as loosely as the black knee brace hanging from his left knee. "I just had some swelling in my knee, so I just took it easy. It swells up, but it's nothing that's hurt, nothing injured."

The question was natural, after he missed the previous two days of work. Even coach John Fox made light of it, saying: "Like I told you, he had a little owie and he came back."

Of course, Hackett's reaction can be expected, since he's one of the unfortunate few in the business who carries the "injury prone" label.

Whether it's true is a case-by-case basis. The Panthers checked him out thoroughly before signing him this offseason, and that if anything, the past helped drive the current price down, to the point they signed him for a relatively cheap two-year, $3.5 million.

"It just depends on if it's something that's chronic or reoccurring or the medicine of it shows it's going to be reoccurring," Fox said of the questions they asked during the free agency courtship. "But there's guys that get hurt. Football's a rough game.

"Sometimes a guy has a bad luck streak, sometimes a guy never gets hurt again, sometimes it's more of the same. So it's predicting the future, and I haven't mastered that."

What he could stand on is Hackett's record, and the cold, hard numbers are easy to see.

Hackett's missed 31 of a possible 64 games with a collection of problems big and small.

The first 16 were during Hackett's rookie year, when Seattle didn't know what to do with the fifth-round pick from Colorado. He was inactive the first seven games, then landed on injured reserve with what the Seahawks called a "hip flexor injury." He was actually suffering from a bout of osteitis pubis, an inflammation of the hip that wasn't necessarily season-ending. It's the kind of condition that's treated with rest and rehab, and no one in Charlotte seems to think it's a red flag.

"Yeah, I wasn't hurt," Hackett said with a laugh. "But then that stigma gets put on you. I had an injury in training camp, but had been playing the whole season. Then all of a sudden you're hurt. What do you say, no? What are you going to do?"

Aside from being stashed his rookie year, Hackett missed 10 games last year battling a high ankle sprain. Other than those two, the absences were of shorter duration, and in between he's been remarkably productive considering the deep receiving corps the Seahawks have. In just 14 starts (and 33 games), he's caught 105 passes for 1,394 yards (13.3 per reception) and nine touchdowns.

The Panthers think the 6-foot-2, 208-pounder was worth the gamble, as he gives them a guy who fills in some of the blanks they had. The 26-year-old's a more physical player than their fleet of little guys (Ryne Robinson and Jason Carter), more experienced than those two and Dwayne Jarrett, and younger than Muhsin Muhammad.

"It's everybody; you've got the right in the middle, the old and the young," Hackett said. "So it's going to be a good combination, it's going to be good."

That's why Hackett also knows it's important to stay healthy if he wants a spot. The Panthers have gone out of their way to praise Jarrett, and Robinson and Carter have shone during summer practices while the starting job opposite Steve Smith seems ceded to Muhammad.

On the other hand, they think Hackett's a far more explosive player than he's shown, with more speed than is readily apparent, and good hands when he's worked across the middle.

"Got to get back out here, can't stand around too long," Hackett joked. "It's good personnel. It's playoff personnel. That's the way I look at it, that's why I came here."

He said the recent knee swelling was something that happens from time to time, and a few days of rest and ice usually have him ready again. But mostly, he just shrugged when asked about his reputation.

"You can't do nothing about it," Hackett said of the tag that's been on him the last four years. "All I can do is go out there and make plays. I can't worry about what people were saying."