Every NFL season, there are players who suffer serious injuries—that is an inevitability of the sport that everyone who plays it and everyone who watches it knows. The following season, many of the injured return to the field, hoping that whatever befell their knees or shoulders doesn't continue to affect their play in a negative way.
This is an even tougher order for star players—household names, league MVPs—who want to come back from their injuries as good as, or even better than, they were before. Often, it simply doesn't happen.
The new gold standard for star players returning from injury seemingly no worse for wear is Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson has long been a freakish athletic specimen, but his 2012 return from a December 2011 torn ACL and MCL made him seem almost superhuman.
Peterson's 2012 saw him win the NFL's MVP Award, the Associated Press' Offensive Player of the Year Award and All-Pro honors after he rushed for a total of 2,097 yards—nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. He averaged six yards per carry, 131 yards per game and scored 12 rushing touchdowns. Peterson seemed to be an even better player after injury, which isn't all too common.
The fact that it's uncommon doesn't mean other star players aren't being held up to the same standard. We look at what Peterson accomplished after an injury that could have ended other players' careers and think that perhaps anyone can return from catastrophic knee trauma as though nothing happened, even though 21 percent of running backs and receivers who suffered ACL tears from 1998 through 2002 never played another snap.
Among the top-tier players who suffered serious injuries—all to their knees—in 2012, the most notable were now-Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller.
Revis' injury was a torn ACL; Griffin's was to his ACL and LCL (and was his second ACL injury, though this time it was a partial tear); Miller's was a full tear of his ACL, PCL and LCL. Each happened at different points in the season, with Revis' the earliest and Griffin's the latest.
Revis has the advantage of having been injured earlier in the 2012 season, giving him a longer time to recuperate. Though his rehab is going well, Revis won't be participating in the Buccaneers' OTAs; this is unsurprising and doesn't indicate how ready he'll be come Week 1 of the 2013 season. However, his longer recovery time also doesn't mean that he'll return to his league-best form this year, or ever.
Though cornerbacks weren't included in that 1998-2002 study, it's not hard to extrapolate the data to the position. Corners are very much like receivers and running backs, in that they must read and react quickly and make fast cuts on the field; they also must run alongside receivers (especially man corners like Revis), make plays on the football and tackle.
If a top cornerback like Revis loses even a half-step as a result of his ACL tear, that's yards and points given up. It's an unforgiving position that doesn't mix well with either age or injury. While Revis is an incredible athlete and has the benefit of time on his side, the very nature of the position he plays and how he plays it makes it difficult to assume he'll be the next Peterson, in terms of the degree of his recovery.
For similar reasons, combined with the timing of the injury, it's also hard to say that Miller will bounce back to his 2012 form, let alone be ready for Week 1. Miller also doesn't have age on his side—he's 30 years old presently, and turns 31 in October. NFL players slow with age as it is; Miller being on the so-called "wrong" side of 30 combined with a three-ligament tear in his knee strongly appears to indicate he won't be the same reliable, every-down playmaker he's been for the Steelers.
That leaves us with Griffin, who should have the best 2013 season among the high-profile injured of 2012.
While this isn't Griffin's first ACL injury—that was in 2009—the fact that this one was a partial tear (though it still required surgery) combined with his age and the position he plays makes him have the greatest chance to have a successful return to the football field this year.
Granted, Griffin is known for his mobility along with his big arm, and it was this mobility (combined with a bit of stubbornness on both his part as well as his coach, Mike Shanahan, and terrible field conditions) that helped cause this injury. The concern is that the injury will thus limit Griffin's ability to run and scramble and in turn, decrease his overall effectiveness.
Shanahan believes that Griffin's mobility actually protects him, and in a way he's right—he's not as susceptible to being sacked when pressure comes.
Critics of those comments are also right in their own way—namely those who concede that a mobile quarterback is an asset (especially one who can also throw the ball well, like Griffin), but that the mobility must be used in the right way, to minimize how hard a hit he gets when eventually, his run comes to an end. A quarterback on the run can head out of bounds and still have made a play.
But Griffin isn't all about running; it's just one part of everything he does as a quarterback—yes, he had 815 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on 120 carries last year, but he also passed for 3,200 yards and threw 20 touchdowns to a mere five interceptions.
And as a quarterback—as in, he who throws the passes in a football game—he's at an advantage with his injury, considering it's a much lower-impact position (in terms of his knee) than running back, tight end or cornerback.
When Tom Brady tore both his ACL and MCL in 2008, missing the entire season, he returned the following year to become NFL Comeback Player of the Year and again led his New England Patriots to the postseason. It was almost as though he never missed a beat. If Brady were a running back instead, picking up where he left off would be much harder.
Granted, Brady doesn't run—he's a pocket passer—but Brady's return from the knee injury has parallels to Griffin's situation. First, it will probably result in Griffin learning more confidence in the pocket. Second, it will force him to use better judgment when running with the ball and when to bail rather than take a hit. It will help him return from his injury more smoothly as well as prevent another injury later on.
However, the sad, stark fact remains that Peterson's recovery is an exception and not the rule. While injury treatments—particularly for the knees—have advanced rapidly, to the extent that the study involving ACL tears from 1998 to 2002 may not accurately reflect recovery and return times 11 years later, what Peterson accomplished after such a serious injury cannot be expected out of every NFL player who experiences it subsequently.
Griffin, Revis, Miller and every other player who suffered season-ending injuries last year may all return and play well this year, and that's a major accomplishment in its own right. None of these players need to come close to breaking a longstanding record or win the league MVP award in order for their returns from their respective injuries to be a success.
It's important to acknowledge what Peterson did last year without turning it into a template for other injured players; expectations need to be more realistic, even if Peterson did something that prior to 2012 had been mostly considered impossible.
That being said, in looking at these three players—Miller, Revis and Griffin—in particular, and it seems most likely that Griffin can return to his former level of play, even if his recovery time was among the shortest in the NFL. As long as he's smart about when to run the ball, remains an accurate passer and his rehabilitation continues to go according to plan, Griffin has the best shot of returning from his 2012 injury as if little had happened.