Can Mended Stars Rise Again?
Tom Brady gets top billing among NFL players attempting comebacks from serious injuries that shut them down in 2008, but he's not the only potential difference-maker on the list. Team fortunes and maybe a Super Bowl title could hinge on who returns to high-impact form.
Brady's 2008 season ended with a hit to his left knee early in the New England Patriots opener.
Monday against the visiting Buffalo Bills, the surgically repaired quarterback returns with a team that just missed the playoffs without him.
"Nobody likes to sit out like I did last year," says the two-time Super Bowl MVP, in his 10th season at 32. "And really, I think the way our season ended last year, no one really enjoyed the offseason very much, either. So everybody is excited to get back."
Pro Bowl quarterbacks Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals and Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks also start anew. Palmer's ailing throwing elbow limited him to four early starts in '08. Hasselbeck, hampered by a bulging disk in his back, made seven starts before sitting out the last month. Both are critical to their teams' hopes.
Linebacker Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers and defensive end Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants look to rebound from knee surgeries and regain their status as dominators.
For every star, there are many other contributors mounting comebacks. The 2008 season ended for Washington Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels on the first day of training camp. He came down awkwardly on his left leg and tore two knee ligaments.
"I remember doing a press conference after I got hurt. I said, 'I'm going to rehab as hard as I can and come back.' I don't think anybody believed me," says Phillips, back for a 14th season at the age of 36.
For decades, the NFL has added rules on player safety. This year's additions include bans on wedge blocking on kickoff returns and "blindside" blocks such as the one that broke the jaw of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers in 2008. There's been extra emphasis on the rule against the kind of hit to the knee Brady took from Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard crawling to sack him.
When major injuries happen, players rely on modern sports medicine, arduous rehabilitation and motivation. Sometimes, that's not enough. Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis retired at 29 in 2002 after multiple knee injuries.
But it can be done.
Defensive back Rod Woodson tore an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in his knee in the opener for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1995. He had surgery to replace the ligament and came back that season to play in the Super Bowl. He made the Pro Bowl 11 times in 17 seasons (five times post-surgery).
Teams felt absences
"I'll be back, I'm comin' back. Don't throw away that welcome mat." - Elvis Presley, I'll Be Back, 1966.
Just as the returns of key players could have impact, their 2008 absences took tolls:
Merriman played only in San Diego's opener before having surgery to repair lingering knee ligament damage from 2007. The Chargers had 42 sacks in 2007, 12 1/2 by Merriman. Without him last season, the team total was 28.
A comeback complication for Merriman: A reality star has accused him of battery and false imprisonment. The San Diego district attorney's office is reviewing the matter. No charges have been filed.
Umenyiora had 13 sacks in 2007 and the Super Bowl champion Giants had a league-high 53. The team total slipped to 42 last season after Umenyiora was lost to preseason knee surgery.
Palmer came back strong in 2006 after knee reconstruction. He was limited to four games in 2008 because of ligament and tendon damage in his throwing elbow. He opted against surgery and relied on rest and rehab. "My arm is fine. There is a little bit of scar tissue, but I've probably got scar tissue all over," says Palmer, who has missed the last three preseason games with an ankle sprain.
Running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tore the patellar tendon in his right knee in 2007. He injured the same tendon in his left knee last season. After surgeries, he'll start opening day.
Hasselbeck's bulging disk was one of many 2008 woes for a Seattle offense that ranked 28th in total yards. All five line starters ended the year on injured reserve. Wide receiver Nate Burleson was lost with a knee injury in the opener. With Hasselbeck, Burleson and more coming back, the Seahawks look to return to the form of the league's ninth-ranked offense in '07.
The long road back
"The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back." - Vince Lombardi, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach.
During the first practice of the Redskins' 2008 camp, Daniels tore two left knee ligaments.
A ligament on the outside of his knee was repaired. The ACL on the inside was replaced by a strip from his patellar tendon. Brady had the same kind of surgery to replace his torn ACL.
"I knew I was going to come back. I got hurt the first day of practice, and that gave me like 12 months before the season started, 13 months really before (this) season started," Daniels says.
In the weeks after the surgery, Daniels did sitting leg raises with 10-pound weights on his ankle. He moved from that to lunging and squatting exercises. He did exercises for balance.
At the Redskins complex and a rehabilitation center in suburban Chicago, he rehabbed five days a week. After four months, he was doing ladder drills, shuffling side to side while stepping over a ladder-like grid. He did treadmill walking and running. By March, he was power lifting. He says he's back to his pre-injury dead lift of 750 pounds (lifting the barbell from the ground to his knees).
"I'm right back to where I was last year . . . but probably stronger because during the rehab process we work a lot of small muscle groups," says Daniels, 6-6, 311 pounds.
After Brady was injured in last season's opener, Patriots owner Robert Kraft says, the quarterback wanted to have surgery, do rehab and return at the end of the season.
"I believe he could have," Kraft says. "But we had to do what is medically correct for him."
The Patriots, who turned to backup Matt Cassel, went 11-5 but missed the playoffs because the Miami Dolphins had the same record and a tiebreaker edge in the AFC East. Cassel threw for 21 touchdowns, fine for a first-time starter. But in 2007, Brady threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns.
Cassel has been traded to the Chiefs. The Patriots are in Brady's hands again. "Hopefully, I can contribute in the way I have in the past," Brady says. "I don't lose sleep over it. I just get up and try to go out there and make the right plays."
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison knows about comebacks. He tore three knee ligaments in 2005 and returned in 2006. He also knows Brady.
"He can run around and do the things he wants to do," says Harrison, now an NBC analyst. "Now, it's getting used to game situations with people falling around your legs. Once that happens and you're fine, it builds confidence."
Brady has been wearing a knee brace at the suggestion of Patriots athletic trainer Jim Whalen.
"He would rather not wear that brace, which is . . . a sign that he feels confident," says surgeon Neal ElAttrache, who repaired the knee.
Brady's preseason stats read like the Brady of 2007: 26 of 42 passing for 307 yards and four TDs with one interception. He says the preseason helped. "I think a lot of those first-game jitters are gone," he says. "It's going to be fun for all of us to get out there and have a regular-season game."