For Derrick Rose, there's no such thing as a grace period.
Normally, a player returning from a catastrophic knee injury would take the court with the benefit of lowered expectations. There would be an understanding among fans and teammates that it might take some time for said player to get comfortable.
He'd be allowed to feel things out.
But Rose won't enjoy that luxury. Not after the way his rehabilitation process dragged on while he insisted he wasn't ready. And especially not after he started making statements about how much better he was going to be upon his return.
The Long Road Back
It's probably not fair to compare injuries between different athletes. One of the wiser narratives to arise out of Rose's own rehab process was the one that cautioned against assuming one torn ACL was just like another.
In reading and talking about Rose, we learned that there were countless variables that could affect recovery time: body chemistry, slight differences in the nature of the tear and even the individual athlete's unique healing speed.
But when Rose finally returns this season, nobody's going to remember any of that.
If he doesn't play well—or looks hesitant on the court—he won't have the excuse of blaming his performance on coming back too soon. That's because his rehab took roughly 18 months, while guys like Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III managed to make their comebacks in half of that time.
Fans are patient and understanding when they've got reason to believe that a delayed return is in the best long-term interests of their favorite player. But if Rose hits the court at anything less than full speed, the same fans that preached caution last year won't be receptive to any talk about Rose needing even more time to get his legs underneath him.
Players who hurry back and underperform get the benefit of the doubt. The ones who take their time don't.
And remember, there were plenty of vocal detractors that didn't want to hear about Rose's cautious approach in the first place. Imagine how upset they'll be if he isn't his old, MVP self from the word "go."
A loud minority of fans turned on Rose because of his prolonged absence, and if he's not extremely impressive right off the bat, it'll be almost impossible to win them back.
We like to think we've evolved as sports fans, but at our cores, we still prefer guts and toughness to thoughtful caution. Last year, Rose famously quantified just how careful he planned to be:
Derrick Rose tells USA TODAY he is not coming back until he's 110%: "Right now, [I'm] probably in the high 80s. Far away. Far away."— Beyond The Buzzer (@BeyondTheBuzzer) February 12, 2013
And if he doesn't play at a level that justifies the length of his time away from the court, he won't have a leg to stand on.
Telling fans he was going to wait until he reached the imaginary health threshold of "110 percent" wasn't Rose's best idea. It created an unreasonable expectation and put more pressure on his eventual return than there otherwise would have been.
He compounded the problem by dropping encouraging hints about his revamped game in the later stages of his rehab.
We've heard him talk about his increased strength, his added explosiveness and his re-tooled jumper. Putting those expectations out there wasn't a good idea, either.
According to D Rose he's stronger, faster, more explosive, has better shot & Doesn't need any help. So, I have high expectations #noexcuses— Robert Littal (@BlkSportsOnline) September 19, 2013
But Rose really didn't have much choice.
See, he was fully aware of the negative feelings many Bulls fans had about his prolonged rehab process. Rose is Chicago's favorite son, its local kid made good. It hurt him to hear doubters complain about his toughness and question his motivations.
So he tried to win them over by making assurances that the wait was going to be worth it. He essentially promised that the Rose 2.0 would be even better than the original. Maybe that appeased critics and maybe it didn't. But one thing it definitely did was raise the stakes of his return.
Without a Net
Everyone's excited about Rose's comeback season, largely because his healthy return could be enough to propel the Bulls to their first championship of the post-Jordan era. But if Rose falters, he won't be able to make any excuses.
He won't be able to say that he rushed back, or that he wasn't ready. And if he's not better than ever, there will probably be a portion of fans who'll be disappointed.
Rose took a supremely cautious approach to his return, and it was probably the smart move for his physical health going forward. But because of the way he raised expectations—both accidentally and on purpose—he's about to walk a tightrope without a net to catch him if he slips.
Let's hope his legs are as strong as he says they are.