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ACL: A Changing Landscape?

For years, three simple letters had the ability to strike fear in the hearts of fantasy footballers:  A-C-L.  In fact, owners who witnessed players tear their anterior cruciate ligaments undoubtedly wanted to turn and run away from their televisions in a manner unfortunately no longer accessible to the athlete in question.  After all, they knew what was on the horizon – surgery and rehab, followed by relatively substandard statistics when the player finally returned.

For participants in dynasty football leagues, the effects of ACL injuries are amplified.  Player management becomes even more crucial, with league rules dictating a finite number of roster spots, and no guarantees of an injured reserve.  This type of “roster purgatory” not only diminishes lineup flexibility, but leads to questions surrounding the player’s trade value.

Running backs, arguably, are most affected by ACL injuries.  This isn’t too surprising, as they run the most rigorous weekly gauntlet of all the skill players, seeing a “perfect storm” of quick-twitch lateral movement and crushing hits.  It’s hard enough escaping a monster like Vince Wilfork on healthy knees, and that challenge is generally intensified post-injury and operation.

In 2011, four current fantasy-relevant NFL running backs suffered ACL injuries:  Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Rashard Mendenhall and Knowshon Moreno.  All four have seen time on the field in 2012, and while they’ve seen varying degrees of success, the overall results have been positive.  Is it possible that the landscape of ACL injuries to running backs is changing?  The following analysis will attempt to answer that exact question.

Adrian Peterson, RB MIN

Age:  27

Date of ACL Tear:  December 26, 2011

Statistical Analysis:

% Games Played Per Season

Carries Per Game

Rush Yards Per Game

Yards per Carry

Previous Career Average

91.3

19.3

92.5

4.8

2012

100.0

20.4

123.1

6.0

% Change

9.5

5.7

33.1

25.0

 

Interpretation:  I realize he’d be stepping on the toes of Cam Newton’s touchdown celebration, but Peterson has been the true Superman of the 2012 NFL season.  Despite being injured in the second-to-last week of the 2011 season, Peterson has returned better than ever, and is on pace for his greatest statistical season to date.  He’s currently leading the league in rushing yards, and will join the “2,000 Club” if he averages 133 yards over the final three games of the 2012 season.

Moreover, he’s doing all this despite the fact that Vikings’ quarterback Christian Ponder is averaging less than 200 passing yards per game.  Couple that with an injury to the only other playmaker on the roster, receiver Percy Harvin, and defenses know what’s coming every play.  They just can’t stop it!  Suffice it to say, Peterson’s remarkable recovery may very well have single-handedly caused a fundamental shift in how ACL injuries are regarded.

Jamaal Charles, RB KC

Age:  25

Date of ACL Tear:  September 18, 2011

Statistical Analysis:

 

% Games Played Per Season

Carries Per Game

Rush Yards Per Game

Yards per Carry

Previous Career Average

97.1

12.7

78.5

6.2

2012

100.0

18.5

93.8

5.1

% Change

3.0

45.7

19.5

-17.7

*Did not include rookie season in 2008 (played sparingly)

**Did not include weeks following ACL tear in 2011

Interpretation:  Known early in his career for being a big-play specialist with limited workloads, Charles actually posted the greatest yards-per-carry average of all time (6.4) during his 2010 breakout season.  That’s why it’s interesting to see that he’s averaging almost six more carries per game after his ACL injury, and still maintaining an excellent efficiency.  It’s true that a large part of the blame lies with former coach Todd Haley, who mystifyingly continued to feed the rock to the aging Thomas Jones.  Regardless of the rationale, “Charles in Charge” is on pace to achieve the greatest statistical season of his young career.  While his injury occurred early in the 2011 season, Charles’ 2012 campaign provides more evidence for a more immediately complete recovery from ACL injuries.

Rashard Mendenhall, RB PIT

Age:  25

Date of ACL Tear:  January 1, 2012

Statistical Analysis:

 

% Games Played Per Season

Carries Per Game

Rush Yards Per Game

Yards per Carry

Previous Career Average

97.9

16.9

70.4

4.2

2012

36.4

8.5

28.3

3.3

% Change

-62.8

-49.7

-59.8

-21.4

*Did not include rookie season in 2008 (played sparingly)

**Was a healthy scratch for two games in 2012

Interpretation:  As many talking heads have proclaimed, this is what a post-injury season is supposed to look like!  Not only was Mendenhall not ready for the start of the season (activated following the Steelers’ week four bye), but he also suffered a minor Achilles injury in only his second game back, missing four more contests.  Needless to say, Mendenhall’s numbers have suffered across the board relative to his career averages.

The best comparison for Mendenhall is Peterson, as their injuries were suffered only a week apart.  It’s unknown as to why their recoveries have diverged as they have, other than Peterson is notorious for being one of the hardest workers in the NFL.  It would be unfair to assume Mendenhall didn’t diligently rehabilitate his knee, but regardless of the reason, he hasn’t seen much, if any, 2012 success.

Knowshon Moreno, RB DEN

Age:  25

Date of ACL Tear:  November 13, 2012

Statistical Analysis:

 

% Games Played Per Season

Carries Per Game

Rush Yards Per Game

Yards per Carry

Previous Career Average

90.6

14.8

59.5

4.0

2012

100.0

16.0

57.6

3.6

% Change

10.4

8.1

-3.2

-10.0

*Did not include 2011 season (lost starting job)

**Was a healthy scratch for eight games in 2012

Interpretation:  Moreno’s case is a curious one, as he began his Broncos’ career as the unquestioned starter, only to fall behind Willis McGahee in the pecking order in 2011.  Despite familiarizing himself with the bench for the majority of 2011-2012, Moreno was again called upon when McGahee was injured late in the 2012 season.  In the past three weeks Moreno has averaged 24 carries, recording statistics similar to his early career.  While he wasn’t ever a truly special talent, it’s nevertheless encouraging to see another player achieve success so soon after an ACL injury.

Conclusion

These are the unadulterated facts:

  1. Three of the four players profiled above have achieved 2012 successes greater than or relatively equal to their career averages.
  2. The one who didn’t (Mendenhall) suffered his injury later than the others, during the final week of the 2011 season.
  3. All four of the players are between the ages of 25 and 27.
  4. None of the four players are known to have had any other major knee injuries during their NFL careers.

It’s too soon to determine if the above data consists of a set of statistical outliers, or if the science behind ACL surgery and subsequent recovery is advancing.  However, as a dynasty owner, it might be time to stop overestimating the impact of ACL tears on relatively young players who don’t have a history of knee injuries.  No, there aren’t any obvious “buy low” candidates who suffered ACL injuries in 2012 (unless you count Bernard Scott, which I don’t).  With that said, I know I won’t be scared of offers involving afflicted stud running backs, and you shouldn’t either.  If a trade offer does present itself, just don’t hurt yourself running to your computer to hit “accept!”

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Eric MacKenzie
9 years ago

I still think AP used HGH or something similar to recover so quickly. The “hard worker” excuse is exactly what people used to say about Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong and why they were able to achieve previously impossible feats. Personally, I’m on the fence with HGH in general and in favour of it for speeding up recovery times. I just don’t think AP’s recovery time is natural or should be expected of anyone going forward so long as HGH remains a banned substance.

Anthony Bartilucci
Reply to  Eric MacKenzie
9 years ago

I have to agree. I’m also on the fence with AP and PED use this year. Like you said it’s not until after players are caught that we all slap our heads and say, “yes something was very suspicious about what that player was accomplishing” Either way, fast healer or PED use I too do not think we should use APs recovery as a realistic timetable for other players with this injury at similar points in their career with similar past production to APs.

9 years ago

Very cool concept to explore!

Jeff Huntley
9 years ago

I love articles like this. These are so informative and touch on things no other site
Does. Please keep these coming. All the historical analysis stuff is downright intriguing the way you guys lay it out

9 years ago

From my own looks into ACL injuries, I’ve found a few common threads between those that have come back from ACL injuries at near the same level as they were before. Some of them overlap a bit with this study. These are the common things for RBs that seem to make it back that I found:

1) RBs under 28 years old at the time of the injury.
2) The ACL injury should be the first major injury of their career.
3) No talented backup on the team.
4) Not in the last year of their contract at the time of injury.
5) Stay out of trouble off the field

If a RB fits with those, they seem to make it back at near the same level in about 1 year from the injury. What Peterson did was just amazing though! He should be rounding into form right about now, not 3 months ago!

Anthony Bartilucci
9 years ago

Just to add to the general talking point, I do believe medical science is improving everyday. I’m sure we’ll see shorter recovery times for many “bad sports” injuries in the future and I think we’ll see them able to come back and be productive players, again due to advancements in Rehab.

I do think we should still be cautious with these types of injuries. I still believe all players bodies react differently to all sorts of injuries and just because some players are able to round back into form post injury doesn’t mean all or even most will do the same.

I also don’t think there is a lot of relevant data on the subject and going forward I will still try to analyze these injuries on a player by player basis.

I think the most intriguing player going forward, as related to this topic, will be Lattimore. Two major knee injuries in two years, but still only 21 year old with significant upside.

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