'98 ruching champs continue return from Wounded Knee

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Running backs Jamal Anderson and Terrell Davis are already football marvels. Now they are hoping to become medical marvels.

The two best NFL running backs of 1998 attempt to regain their conference rushing crowns in 2000 after missing most of last season with freak injuries to their right knees.

Anderson tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the second game of the 1999 season on the artificial turf at Dallas. Davis went down in the fourth week on the grass in Denver with a torn ACL, a partially torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) and cartilage damage.

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Rocky Mountain News
Denver's Terrell Davis, carrying here against Dallas on Aug. 19, has averaged five yards per carry in the preseason.

Both underwent fall surgery, both were diligent in their off-season rehabilitation, both returned to the field for the opening of training camp and both returned to the starting lineup in the preseason.

Anderson and Davis won't be the first runners to come back the following season from serious knee injuries. But that was never their challenge. Once upon a time, torn knee ligaments were a career-threatening injury. No more.

"The ACL is becoming more and more casual," Cowboys trainer Jim Maurer said. "People are expecting to come back."

The challenge for these two elite backs is to come back as good as ever. Can Davis be the same back who chased and caught the magical 2,000-yard plateau in 1998 in winning his first NFL rushing title? Can Anderson be the same back who set a franchise record with 1,846 yards in 1998 in winning his first NFC rushing crown?

History says no. At least not right away.

Terry Allen, Garrison Hearst and Robert Smith all suffered ACL injuries in their rookie seasons during the 1990s. Allen went down in the preseason with the Minnesota Vikings in 1990, Hearst in the seventh game of the 1993 season with the Arizona Cardinals and Smith in the 12th game of that same 1993 season with the Vikings. Hearst's injury was compounded by damage to the meniscus cartilage.

All made it back the following seasons – Allen by the opener, Smith by the second week and Hearst the sixth week – but they hardly resembled the backs who would one day become 1,000-yard NFL rushers. Smith rushed for 106 yards that first year back, Hearst 169 yards and Allen 563.

"It usually takes the next [second] season before everything is well-mottled and healed," said Cardinals trainer John Omohundro, who presided over the Hearst rehabilitation. "You struggle a little bit the first year. Whether there's a cognizance of it [repaired knee] or it's subtle and underlying, you're still thinking about it. It seems to take about a year."

But Anderson and Davis have excelled as underdogs. Both were lightly regarded second-day draft picks during the mid-1990s – Anderson a seventh-round pick by the Falcons out of Utah in 1994 and Davis a sixth-rounder out of Georgia in 1995.

Neither rushed for 1,000 yards in a college season. Anderson was a junior-college transfer, and Davis started less than half the games (13) of his career. Both were bigger, fullback-types with questionable speed. Anderson played at Utah in the 240s and was timed coming out of college in the 4.7s. Davis played at Georgia at 210 and ran in the 4.6s.

But from those humble beginnings ascended two of the NFL's finest performers of the 1990s.

Anderson didn't start until his third year, then strung together three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, culminated by that spectacular 1,846-yard effort in 1998 that carried the Falcons to their first Super Bowl.

Davis capitalized on a decade-long void at halfback to win a starting spot in the Denver backfield his rookie season. He rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first four years, improving statistically each season on the way to that 2,008-yard, NFL MVP performance in 1998.

But their sprints to greatness were interrupted in 1999.

While planting to make a cut in the second game of the season at Texas Stadium, an untouched Anderson blew out his knee and crumpled to the turf. Two weeks later, Davis was chasing New York Jets safety Victor Green on an interception. Teammate Matt Lepsis dove to make the tackle and inadvertently rolled up on Davis' leg, ending his season.

The loss of both conference rushing champions was the worst carnage of high-profile running backs since 1984, when Pro Bowlers William Andrews, Curt Warner and Billy Sims all went down with knee injuries.

Andrews finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1983, but his left knee was shredded in the 1984 preseason. He suffered torn ACL and posterior cruciate ligaments, cartilage damage and a stretched peroneal nerve.

It took him two years to return to the field, but he never really made it back as a player. Andrews carried the ball 52 times for 214 yards in 1986 and was out of football the following season.

Sims never even made it back to the field. He became Detroit's all-time leading rusher in the eighth game of the 1984 season with 103 yards against Minnesota. But he suffered torn knee ligaments on his 22nd carry that day. It turned out to be the last of his 1,131 career carries. Sims rehabilitated his knee into the next season but never again put on a uniform and retired before the 1986 season.

Warner, who led the AFC and finished third in the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 1983, tore knee ligaments in the 1984 opener. He returned in 1985 and rushed for 1,000 yards. But it was laborious. Warner averaged only 3.8 yards per carry – half a yard less than his rookie season – on his way to 1,094 yards.

But by his second post-surgery season, Warner was his old self, rushing for 1,481 yards at an average of 4.6 per carry.

The healing process is always slower than high-performance athletes like Warner, Anderson and Davis allow themselves.

Sound knees are more vital to a running back than any other football player because of all the stops, starts and cuts his position requires. He can generally get back on the field from an ACL injury within nine months, but it takes 18-24 months before a runner is completely comfortable with his repaired knee and confident in his abilities again. The healing is as much mental as it is physical.

"You have to be patient," said Carolina running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka. "No matter how strong you get, you can't heal the body faster. Healing has to take its course. It's a frustrating process."

Biakabutuka should know. He entered the NFL as the eighth overall pick of the 1996 draft by the Panthers. He wore his tag of "franchise" back proudly, penciling in as a rookie starter.

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Louis DeLuca / DMN
Atlanta's Jamal Anderson, who injured his knee last season in the Falcons' season opener against Dallas, has gained only 35 yards in three preseason games.

But his first season lasted only four weeks. Biakabutuka tore his left ACL in the fourth game against Jacksonville, and it has been a long road to recovery. The Panthers held him out of the first two games of the 1997 season, and he wound up rushing for only 299 yards that year. He followed that with a 427-yard season in 1998, then underwent a second surgery to clean up some debris in his knee.

Only last season did Biakabutuka finally start showing the flashes of the All-Big Ten running back he was at Michigan. He had back-to-back 100-yard games in the opening month of the season, ripping Cincinnati for 132 yards in eight carries and Washington for 142 yards in 12 carries. But it took him almost three years to reach that point.

"I thought I'd be back in six months," Biakabutuka said. "That was ego. The tough part was not being able to run like I wanted to. You think you're running fast, and all of a sudden guys are closing in on you. You think you're really moving ... but you're not. That starts messing with your mind.

"You start wondering if you can ever get back. You start looking at everyone's knees, watching them cut. You start fooling yourself, saying, 'I can do it.' But you can't. Then the frustration sets in. Your body isn't going as fast as your mind wants to go."

But medical technology has advanced since the injury to Biakabutuka. It has come a long way since the injuries to Andrews and Sims in the 1980s and an even longer way since the early 1970s, when a knee injury forced Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers into premature retirement.

Doctors once used a sliver of muscle from the hamstring to reconstruct a torn ACL. More recently, doctors have used the middle third of the patellar tendon, and some reconstructions are now being done with tendons from cadavers. The knee reconstructions of Anderson and Davis both involved the patellar tendon.

The bottom line is that players are getting back onto the field faster – and better – than ever.

When Tampa Bay Buccaneers trainer Todd Toriscelli was at Kansas State in the early 1990s, he had a running back return from a torn ACL in 4½ months. Eric Gallon suffered the injury in spring drills in April 1992 but rushed for 134 yards on 29 carries against Temple in September.

"Eric was a physical specimen," Toriscelli said. "But it was an isolated ACL injury. Nothing else inside the knee was involved [in the damage]. As much as I'd like to take credit for it – the next guy who had that problem I used the same rehab protocol, and six months later he was still struggling to jog because of tendinitis."

No two running backs are the same. So, no two knees are the same. And no two rehabilitations are the same. Hard work isn't always the answer.

If you overwork the knee in the rehabilitation process, you can develop tendinitis in the patella. That slows the healing process. Anderson experienced tendinitis in June, which slowed him at the start of training camp.

Anderson didn't suit up for every practice in July. The Falcons also held him out of the first two preseason games against Indianapolis and Dallas, then started him against Cincinnati. He carried the ball five times but didn't gain any yards. In the Falcons' final two preseason games, Anderson gained 17 yards in five carries against San Diego and 18 yards in seven carries against Jacksonville.

But the Falcons aren't concerned about his yards. They are concerned about the psychological aspect of Anderson taking hits again. Thus far, it's thumbs up.

"I'm going to try to play the way I've always played," Anderson said. "I realize [from] talking to guys who have been through this situation that I'm going to have soreness in my knee and different things I'm going to have to overcome, particularly playing on turf for 12 games.

"But I'm one of those guys that there's no in-between. You either go or you don't. I've got to be careful right now and get to the point that the soreness is something I'm used to, something that I can play through."

Davis has done everything the Broncos have asked of him this summer. He started the preseason opener against Arizona and gained 24 yards in six carries. Against Green Bay in Game 2, he increased his workload to eight carries for 28 yards. He improved his production to 31 yards in six carries against Dallas and 32 yards in three carries against San Francisco.

That's an average of 5 yards per carry this summer – nearly matching the 5.1 average of his 2,000-yard season. But Davis is not trying to win any rushing titles in August. He spent the summer getting reacquainted to the speed of the game and magnitude of the hits.

"These are exceptional people that are subjected to the ultimate in rehabilitation," the Cardinals' Omohundro said of Anderson and Davis. "I told Terrell when we were walking off the field [after the preseason opener], 'Good luck to you. The league needs you. You're a real credit to rehab. I hope it continues to go well for you.' He said, 'Well, I got over the first hurdle.' "

There will be more hurdles in the games and weeks ahead. But at least Anderson and Davis are on the track and able to see the finish line.


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