Work in Sports
A kneed to succeed
Davis, Anderson, Green focused on comeback trail
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The first time Jamal Anderson took a handoff in a live game situation this summer -- granted, it was only an exhibition game, and against the Cincinnati Bengals at that -- he looked like a bulky Nuryev on a Georgia Dome turf covered in hot coals.
Anderson calls it "tipping," as in tiptoeing. And it was not a pretty sight for a man who once stiff-armed and bowled over opponents with impunity.
"You could tell. Everyone could tell," Anderson says. "It was like 'Oh. Wow. He's scared.'"
And so it was that the Atlanta Falcons' running back, who carried the team to a surprise Super Bowl after the 1998 season, made some of his first, rather tentative steps back from major reconstructive knee surgery, a trip many before him have taken with varying degrees of success.
Anderson is not alone. Trent Green, a promising young quarterback who maybe should have been the man to lead the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowl glory last season, is in the same gimpy boat. As is Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, the league MVP in 1998 and a Super Bowl MVP the season before.
Anderson and Davis, who talked to each other often during their rehabilitation in the offseason, differ from Green in that they are acknowledged starters coming back from their injuries. But all of three of them -- and many others who suffered similar serious injuries in 1999 -- are staring into a season in which many are wondering if they can be as good as they once were.
"Often times, it takes a little bit of a time playing ... to get over it," says Steve Mariucci, the San Francisco 49ers' coach, who has nursed many players through similar comebacks, including receiver Jerry Rice and, this year, running back Garrison Hearst. "Not just physically, but emotionally."
It is pretty much an accepted axiom in the NFL that players who suffer the kind of injuries that Anderson, Davis and Green did -- all ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in their knees -- take two seasons to regain their pre-injury form. If they ever do.
It took Rice, by his estimation, fully two years to come back from a pair of injuries to his knee he suffered in 1997.
"You say your knee is 100 percent," Rice says, "but deep down ... there's a little hesitation there."
It was a problem Anderson faced in that first comeback against the Bengals, when he avoided hard plants on his right knee. He had five carries in that game without gaining a yard.
He showed some improvement in the next game, getting 17 yards on six carries against San Diego, and finished the preseason with 18 yards on seven carries against Jacksonville.
Says Anderson: "I finally said 'To hell with it. If my knee blows, it blows.'"
Davis, who ran for 2,008 yards in '98, blew out the ACL and partially tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee (he also had some cartilage damage) in the fourth game last season. He was impressive this preseason -- 23 carries for 115 yards, 5 yards a carry -- leading many to believe he may be able to regain the '98 form.
"I'm feeling great," he said in training camp. "I can't put a percentage on how much my knee has come back, but I'm feeling great and I expect to have a great season."
Green, who also tore the MCL and tore meniscus in his left knee, has also performed well. He has taken some hits on his knee in the exhibition season -- and a noticeable hit on his right knee, too -- and heads into the season as MVP Kurt Warner's backup.
None of the players figure to be extensively worked in the earliest part of the season. They'll instead be brought along slowly -- Green, as a backup quarterback, will get even less work -- with the coaches often having the say on when enough is enough.
"When a guy is coming off a surgery, he has got to have a good enough feel to know that he is fatigued," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves says. "That is, I think, the biggest concern."
Reeves wants to get the ball to Anderson 20 times or so in the Falcons' opener against the 49ers on Sunday. But he won't get it that much if Reeves sees it as jeopardizing the health of the knee. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has said he wants to ease the burden on Davis, too, who can take himself out of the game anytime he wants.
If all goes well with the two running backs, it's very possible that by midseason, Davis and Anderson will be carrying their teams again the way they did in '98, when the Falcons and Broncos made it all the way to the Super Bowl. And if something goes not-so-well with St. Louis starter Warner, Green may well join them.
Will it happen? Will these players return to their pre-injury form?
Much of that depends -- some insist most of that depends -- on the player's mental makeup.
"Some people can handle it, some can't. I don't know what goes on up there," says longtime assistant coach George Sefcik, now Atlanta's offensive coordinator and running backs coach. "Some are fast healing. Some are slow healing. Some don't heal."
There's no tiptoeing around that.