Adam Levitan

Injuries in Depth

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A Bad Precedent

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adrian Peterson is a freakish, once in a generation athlete. I get that. He also won’t find himself on any of my teams this season.

Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Rashard Mendenhall and Tim Hightower are all coming off 2011 ACL tears. Based on this research from Dr. James L. Carey and my own conversations with physical therapist Brian Eckenrode, we know that most people in the medical field believe an athlete won’t really get back to 100 percent until more than a year after their injury. Note that when I say 100 percent, I don’t mean just returning to the field and getting what’s blocked. I mean cutting, separating, exploding, leaping and bursting at the same levels as before.  

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the statistics bear out the belief of those experts. As we look back at the recent history of the NFL, running backs struggle badly to reach previous performance levels in the first season following their tear.

The following backs were starters when they sustained the first ACL tear of their career:

Terrell Davis, Broncos
Date of tear: Week 4 of 1999 season
Age at time of injury: 26

1998 season: 16 games, 2008 yards, 5.1 YPC, 21 TDs
2000 season: 5 games, 282 yards, 3.6 YPC, 2 TDs

Here we have a comparison for Peterson. In 1998, Davis was at the top of his profession. That year he was the league’s MVP and a first-team All-Pro. And just like Peterson, Davis tore the MCL in addition to his ACL (Peterson also damaged his meniscus). The results for Davis weren’t pretty as he appeared in just 13 more games in his career, averaging a comparatively pedestrian 4.01 yards per carry. Note that before the tear, Davis had 1,410 career carries. Peterson had 1,406. The two situations are just eerily similar.

As Chris Wesseling pointed out to me, one thing that’s not similar is the medical procedures that were available to each back. Since Davis’ surgery 13 years ago, there have been plenty of advancements. However, is it enough for Peterson to overcome these feelings Davis had after he was forced into a 2002 retirement?

“Rather than being instinctive, you start to choreograph your moves. As a running back, you can’t choreograph your moves. You have to work off instincts,” Davis said.

And then he brought up something even scarier: Complications. Not only do players have to worry about rehabbing their knee, but they have to avoid the collateral damage that comes with such a major injury.

“By that time (2002), I had favored my other knee so much that (my left knee) started to wear out on me,” Davis said.

Jamal Lewis, Ravens
Date of tear: 2001 Preseason
Age at time of injury: 21

2000 season: 16 games, 1364 yards, 4.4 YPC, 6 TDs
2002 season: 16 games, 1327 yards, 4.3 YPC, 6 TDs

In terms of success stories in the year following ACL tears, Jamal Lewis is at the top of the list. But note the unique circumstances here. Lewis was just 21 and his injury occurred in the preseason, giving him 13 months to get ready for the 2002 season. It sounds a little like Jamaal Charles’ current situation.

Edgerrin James, Colts
Date of tear: Week 7 of 2001 season
Age at time of injury: 23

2000 season: 16 games, 1709 yards, 5.5 YPC, 13 TDs
2002 season: 14 games, 989 yards, 3.6 YPC, 2 TDs

James managed to get himself healthy in time for Week 1 of the 2002 season and actually averaged 22.0 carries over the first seven games. But he clearly wasn’t himself. Edge lacked any kind of breakaway speed, as evidenced by the drastic dip in yards per carry.

James found his legs in 2003-2005, averaging 1436.6 yards per season with a 4.29 YPC. That’s certainly worth noting in a Dynasty context. But in a redraft format, James’ 2002 season is another scary precedent.

Deuce McAllister, Saints
Date of tear: Week 6 of 2005 season
Age at time of injury: 26

2004 season: 14 games, 1074 yards, 4.0 YPC, 9 TDs
2006 season: 15 games, 1057 yards, 4.3 YPC, 10 TDs

McAllister bounced back well as he was deemed healthy enough to start Week 1 of the 2006 season. But the Saints’ staff handled him with kid gloves, giving their No. 1 back just 13.5 carries per game over the first 10 weeks of the season. Over McAllister’s final five games, he was given an average of 21.8 carries.

And that raises yet another problem with backs in their first season after an ACL tear. Sometimes, coaching staffs don’t fully trust their player yet, in terms of production or workload. These days, coaches certainly don’t need another excuse to rotate backs in based on situation.

Ronnie Brown, Dolphins
Date of tear: Week 7 of 2007 season
Age at time of injury: 25

2006 season: 13 games, 1008 yards, 4.2 YPC, 5 TDs
2008 season: 16 games, 916 yards, 4.3 YPC, 10 TDs

Similar to Deuce McAllister, workload was an issue here. In Brown’s first six games of the 2007 season, he averaged 17.0 carries per game. After his rehab, he returned to a meager 13.3 carries per game in 2008.

Kevin Smith, Lions
Date of tear: Week 14 of 2009 season
Age at time of injury: 22

2008 season: 16 games, 976 yards, 3.4 YPC, 4 TDs
2010 season: 6 games, 133 yards, 3.9 YPC, 0 TDs

Much like Adrian Peterson and Rashard Mendenhall, Smith’s injury occurred deep in the season. He did get back on the field during training camp, but sat out the first three weeks of the 2010 season. He made his season debut in Week 4 and that may have been a mistake. Smith’s surgically-repaired knee gave him all kinds of problems and he saw just 5.6 carries per game due to ineffectiveness.

Let’s look at the current average draft position (ADP) of the backs coming off ACL tears:
Adrian Peterson: 12.8
Jamaal Charles: 18.4
Rashard Mendenhall: 130.9
Tim Hightower: 136.8

As shown in the situations above, there are three major areas of concern here:
1) Regaining previous levels of effectiveness
2) Workload reductions
3) Complications/related injuries

The argument that Peterson is some kind of superhuman is hard for me to buy – especially when we consider that his tear occurred in Week 16 of the 2011 season. He’d have to laugh in the face of history to be worth an early second-round pick. I’ll be letting someone else take that risk.

Adam Levitan is in his seventh season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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