Friday, September 13, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: The RGIII story the Post Missed

It seems hard to believe, but could it be that even with the tens of thousands of words and dozens of articles the Washington Post Sports section printed on Robert Griffin III's knee the last eight months, there was actually an important story they missed? Believe it or not, I think there was.

For months now, ever since Dr. James Andrews called Griffin "superhuman" in his recovery from knee surgery and Griffin commenced his "All In for Week 1" ad campaign, it has just been assumed that as long as the doctor said the knee was OK, Griffin would quickly return to being the dazzling player he was before the injury last year when the season started. But that leaves out some important history: Before Adrian Peterson's amazingly quick recovery from ACL surgery last season, the idea of any player returning to his old form so quickly after such surgery was seen as extremely unlikely, even dangerous. (The only other one I can find is Carson Palmer, but it's tough to compare a relatively stationary quarterback like Palmer to either a running back like Peterson or an extremely mobile QB like Griffin.)  And while Peterson's great season last year was regularly proclaimed miraculous, the "best ACL recovery ever," he had two weeks more than Griffin to recover from his surgery. So in other words, what Griffin did by coming back on Monday night, eight months after reconstructive knee surgery, was virtually unprecedented. And yet, I can't find any article from the Post during the offseason really examing whether, despite Dr. Andrews' claims of Griffin's superhero status, we should have expected the old RGIII this year. Why didn't anyone at the Post raise the question: What if RGIII is "superhuman," but not as "superhuman" as Adrian Peterson?

Yes, the Post has, at times, raised the possibility of whether "he'll be the same" (this Dave Sheinin piece the day of the opener the most recent). And there's been lots and lots and lots of talk about whether Griffin's knee is healthy. But the better question is  not whether Griffin's knee is perfectly sturdy and healthy, but whether his problems Monday night were not "rust" for lack of practice, but more the lack of time to build up the strength, confidence and muscle memory than an athlete needs when coming back from such a severe injury. Check out this USA Today article entitled, "Don't Count On Others to Come Back Like Peterson Did" from February:

"Adrian Peterson came back so well that in some ways it gives people somewhat unrealistic expectations," says Andrew Pearle, orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. 
"For every Adrian Peterson who comes back like he has, there are lots of athletes who struggle the first year," Pearle says. "It doesn't mean they're not working hard. … But that's an example of somebody who came back in a very, very remarkable way. We hope for recoveries like that. We don't always get it." ...
"It's such a hot subject because of Adrian's extraordinary success," says Leon Popovitz, orthopedic surgeon and co-founder of New York Bone & Joint Specialists.
But, he adds, "A lot of people end up returning six months to 12 months later and not being at their ideal, peak level until sometime the season afterwards, after the 12-month period."
And why is that? Well, this May article from Newsday explains how recovering from knee surgery is about more than just the strength of the ligament:
Craig Levitz, chief of orthopedic surgery at South Nassau Community Hospital, sat back in a chair in his Lynbrook office. With his eyes closed, he reclined, lifted his leg and placed his right foot flat against the wall. Had he undergone a recent ACL reconstruction, he might not have been able to do that simple task. 
"I can sense where my knee and foot are in space,'' he said. "There are proprioceptors that live in the ACL, but when you tear your ACL, they're gone. The reconstructed ACL has nothing in it.'' 
Proprioception may be the most important word in returning from an ACL injury. It's the difference between Adrian Peterson and Bulls star point guard Derrick Rose, who has yet to play in a game since tearing his ACL more than a year ago. It is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and the effort needed to create movement. In other words, it is what allows an athlete to feel like himself again. 
The body must redevelop those fibers into the new ACL through repetitive activity. 
"When you tear your ACL and you come back, the game is too fast for you,'' Levitz said. "You're used to seeing a guy [on the field] and your whole body goes that way before you think about it. When you tear your ACL, you have to tell your leg to go that way . . . The muscle loses all its memory when you tear an ACL. You've made a baby again. So you have to teach it.'' 
The Vikings did not use Peterson in any preseason games in 2012, but they did allow him to practice in training camp. That helped the muscle memory of those dizzying cuts and bruising bursts to return to his knee. And it took Peterson a little while to get going once the regular season began. He had one game with more than 100 rushing yards in his first six, and that was for 102. In his last 10 games, he ran for fewer than 100 only once. 
"He did not show that lack of proprioception,'' Levitz said. "Most guys need that one year . . . He very well could have had muscles that were able to re-learn at a rate faster than the average guy's.''

In all the words spilled on Griffin's knee, proprioception wasn't one of them--a search of the Post's website reveals two appearances of the word since the beginning of the year, both in the Health and Science section and neither in an article about Griffin. In fact, I can't find any article from the Post Sports section delving into ACL recovery in anything like the details that the two articles quoted above do--even though it seems directly relevant to the biggest sports story in Washington over the last year. Yes, Sally Jenkins wrote a column over the summer questioning whether Griffin would try to come back too fast, but no one brought up the idea that Griffin's knee might be healthy but he just might not be the same guy he was until late this season or even next year. (Ironically, such a result after such surgery was often cited last year in coverage of a different local team's star--Tom Boswell frequently wrote about how a pitcher coming back after Tommy John surgery is inconsistent and usually isn't the same pitcher he was until the following year.)

After game one, of course, many observers said Griffin didn't look like himself, and Jenkins wrote a very interesting column arguing that the quarterback just wasn't himself and shouldn't have played. But why was this possibility not reported about or really even discussed by Post sportswriters and columnists all spring and summer? Just because Griffin and Andrews and the Redskins were all spin and smiles about how the recovery is going, isn't there anyone at the Post to play the doom-and-gloomer and delve into whether all the talk was medically unrealistic? (And yes, I know that on Sunday Griffin could go out and be the RGIII of old--but, as of now, we're left with what we saw Monday night.)

In light of Monday night's game, it's funny to look back at Tom Boswell's column last weekend, in which he criticized Vegas oddsmakers for making the Redskins too much of a longshot to win the Super Bowl and said that the rest of the country was still in thrall to "entrenched Redskins hating" that prevented them from seeing how good the Redskins really are. As Boz wrote:
Do the 35-to-1 people think Griffin is still horizontal on the gouged heath of FedEx Non-Field?
 No, they just choose to ignore his recovery. Somewhere there is someone dim enough to think that RGII’s knee is not 99.9-percent healed; but that person has not been exposed to the Post’s occasional coverage of this joint; or, during warmups, seen Griffin sprint from end zone to end zone, doing a handspring into a triple back flip with a halfgainer.
No, maybe the rest of the football-watching world just knows that coming back from reconstructive knee surgery isn't as easy as RGIII and the Redskins have claimed it is--and don't want to bet their money on it.


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