Adrian Peterson (Jeremy Brevard/US Presswire)
Adrian Peterson is saying all the right things and is on track to return to action some time in 2012, but the history of running backs suffering ACL injuries doesn’t bode well for him to getting back to pre-injury production.
The biggest offseason question lingering around the Vikings is the health of Adrian Peterson. The NFL’s preeminent running back through his first five seasons, Peterson suffered a torn ACL and MCL against the Washington Redskins in December and put his future in doubt.
Peterson is looking to reverse history, but, unfortunately, the numbers don’t point to a return to pre-injury glory. If anyone can make a full recovery less than one year removed from the surgery, it’s Peterson. He is pushing himself hard to be ready for the Vikings’ regular-season opener Sept. 9 but said he isn’t going to push himself so hard that he has a setback in his progress.
“It’s about long-term and I understand that,” Peterson said in a recent interview with ESPN. “Ultimately, I’m going to be smart and do what’s best for me. I know my body and I know once that Week 1 comes of the regular season, I’m going to be able to go out and perform the way I need to. I know I’ll be able to do that.”
2011 was particularly devastating on running backs with torn ACLs. Not only did Peterson go down, but so did franchise backs Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh) and Jamaal Charles (Kansas City) – as well Knowshon Moreno (Denver) and Tim Hightower (Washington).
The recovery from a torn ACL would appear to be based primarily on two factors – the age of the player involved and the workload he carried prior to going down to injury. Younger fans may have never heard of Gale Sayers, but when Sayers burst on the scene in the mid-1960s, he revolutionized the running game in the NFL. He was the best pure speed runner the game had seen to that point, before a knee injury prematurely ended his career. Despite not posting the kind of career numbers that typically entitle a player to Hall of Fame enshrinement, Sayers was inducted almost immediately out of a sign of respect for his contribution to game. But, without the medical advancements that were made in subsequent years, Sayers’ career all but ended with his knee injury.
An ACL tear hasn’t necessarily been an NFL death sentence for a running back, but even the recent history is cause for concern for players like Peterson, Mendenhall and Charles. Some of the game’s top running backs in recent years have suffered ACL tears and their recovery has been spotty as to what they were pre-injury.
In 1998, the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons went to the Super Bowl primarily on the strength of running backs Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson. Between the two of them, they ran the ball 800 times in 1998. In 1999, both would suffer ACL tears and, given their incredible workload, neither of them came close to recapturing their pre-injury form.
In 2001, Jamal Lewis of the Ravens and Edgerrin James of the Colts both tore an ACL. On their side was the fact that they were very young at the time – Lewis was just 21 and James was 23. Both of them were able to make full recoveries and return to being productive backs, but neither of them were the explosive backs they were pre-injury. They both needed two seasons to become productive once again, but, thanks to their relative youth at the time of the injuries, they were able to make a full recovery and be their team’s featured backs once again.
In 2007, Ronnie Brown was well on his way to setting records for total yards with the Miami Dolphins. Not only was he among the league leaders in rushing, but he led the NFL in receptions at the time of his ACL tear. He would return in 2008 but was never the same. He has become less of a factor in each of his seasons since and is a cautionary tale about how such an injury can derail a promising NFL career.
In 2009, Detroit’s Kevin Smith was becoming one of the NFL’s best dual-purpose runner/receiver backs. Despite being just 23 years old, he has never fully recovered and the Lions have been forced to use a pair of draft picks over the past three years to replace him. He has never been the same since.
None of those running backs were as dominant as A.P. has been. Most of them posted big numbers, but none were the type of breakaway threat Peterson was. It can be argued that Peterson at 80-90 percent is better than 99 percent of NFL running backs at 100 percent. The Vikings are banking on Peterson being able to fully recover – he has mentioned more than once that he expects to come back stronger than he was pre-injury. Will that happen? Only time will tell. Peterson is saying all the right things, but history has told us otherwise with other running backs that have suffered similar injuries.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.