The San Francisco 49ers' hopes of returning to the Super Bowl took a big hit during their OTAs when wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon, as reported by USA Today. This is a serious injury, but it is no longer the devastating one that costs seasons or ends careers. It is possible that Crabtree could return this season.
While the mechanism is unknown, the injury is a simple one. The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscle to the foot and is involved in almost every running and athletic move on the football field. Like any tendon, it can become inflamed due to irritation or mild strains. In some cases, the stress on the tendon goes beyond what it can handle and there is a traumatic strain or even rupture (a complete tearing of the tendon's fibers).
Achilles injuries have a tendency to be traumatic. One play happens where the tendon is overtaxed and gives. While there is often some sign that can be seen in retrospect, this is a very difficult injury to predict or prevent. It is not an "old man's" injury, as some have termed it, but simply one that can happen at almost any time.
The NFL has always dealt with these types of tears due to the demands on the field. A number of recent players returning quicker than normal from Achilles injuries offers some hope and some lessons for Crabtree and the fans watching his rehab and return.
The best position/physical comparison is Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos. Others that have suffered the injury include Ryan Clady, Da'Quan Bowers, Jason Peters and Terrell Suggs. In the NBA, Kobe Bryant suffered an Achilles rupture in the final game of the 2013 season. In soccer, David Beckham was able to return from an Achilles rupture.
Thomas injured his Achilles in February of 2011 and returned to the active list before the opener, a surprise to many who expected that he would miss a full season or more. Thomas did not get on the field due to another injury, a broken finger, until October, but he was back on the practice field less than seven months after the tear. Thomas showed no physical deficits upon returning and had one of the most memorable plays in football history during the playoffs.
Last season, Terrell Suggs surprised many, including myself, with his return. Suggs' injury occurred in late April and he returned in October. Instead of being slowed, Suggs was at full speed, showing his normal quickness and a surprising ability to jump to block passes. This time frame is very similar to what the best-case scenario would be for Crabtree, though the physical demands of the position are very different.
Kobe Bryant, whose ruptured Achilles occurred on April 12, is hoping to return for the start of the next NBA season, which would be a similar return time to Suggs. As I detailed in this article, doctors believe this return time frame is possible and that Bryant should be able to continue playing at a high level. The jumping and demands on an athletic basketball player are different than those of a receiver, but the surgical techniques and rehab protocols are similar enough to bear comparison.
Remember as well that Crabtree has a significant history of foot and ankle problems. Those might have been part of the causation of this injury and could be exacerbated by any changes Crabtree makes to his gait upon return.
While the surgery and rehab will not make this an easy process or a sure thing, Crabtree does have a chance to return in the 2013 season. The standard expectation of a year or more lost is a thing of the past, with a six- to nine-month time frame now the standard. I would expect to see Crabtree running sometime during training camp and back on the field in October.