A different explanation for Adrian Peterson’s amazing ACL recovery

Posted on August 7, 2013

(Last Updated On: April 6, 2016)

“Amazing.” “Unbelievable.” These are the words most often thrown around when discussing Adrian Peterson’s recovery from reconstructive ACL surgery.

His own surgeon, James Andrews, doesn’t have an explanation for how he’s done it. Referring to him as “superhuman.” Andrews is pretty much a god in this world. By his own estimation about 50% NFL athletes who tear their ACL are not only not coming back as well as Peterson, 50% of them aren’t even playing after two years.  

Andrews operates on pretty much anyone noteworthy in professional sports. He’s very in tune with the rehab / physical therapy process as well. So, how does one guy -Adrian Peterson- do something pretty much no one else could do? Despite the fact so many of them have the same surgeon and rehab protocols?

“He’s a freak of a nature”

Compared to your average person, physically, Adrian Peterson is absolutely a freak. However, is he really that much of a freak compared to other NFL players?

Let’s look at someone else with a more typical ACL story, Rashard Mendenhall.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Detroit Lions

Rashard Mendenhall Combine ACL comeback

Mendenhall tore his ACL one week after Peterson did.

Peterson’s 2012 stats:

  • Games Played: 16
  • Rush Attempts: 348
  • Yards: 2,097

Mendenhall’s 2012 stats:

  • Games Played: 6
  • Rush Attempts: 51
  • Yards: 182

Mendenhall has since been deactivated, had to sign with a new team, and is currently still experiencing knee issues. 

“Rashard Mendenhall isn’t in the same league as Adrian Peterson!!!”

Yes, I know. As football players, these two don’t compare. Physically though? Let’s look at their NFL combine numbers. Peterson then Mendenhall:

Ht Wt 40-yd 10-yd split 20-yd split 20-ss 3-cone Vert Broad BP
6 ft 1⅜ in 217 lb 4.40 s 1.53 s 2.58 s 4.40 s 7.09 s 38.5 in 10 ft 7 in 30 reps
Ht Wt 40-yd 10-yd split 20-yd split 20-ss 3-cone Vert Broad BP
5 ft 10 in 225 lb 4.41 s 1.53 s 2.56 s 4.18 s 33.5 in 9 ft 9 in 26 reps

Those are very similar numbers. On paper, there isn’t much difference between these guys. Peterson can out jump Mendenhall a good amount, but Mendenhall is heavier, faster to 20 yards, and quicker. The physical differences between these guys is minor, at best. The differences since they’ve torn their ACLs is major, at least.

(I can’t find who Mendenhall’s surgeon was; if it was a surgeon inferior to Andrews that’s a possible rebuttal point. But Mendenhall is two years younger than Peterson, a possible counter point.)

Adrian Peterson, in relation to NFL football players, is not a physical aberration. Calvin Johnson is 20 pounds heavier and faster. Vernon Davis is 30 pounds heavier, AND faster. Peterson is high up on the ladder, but he’s not an outlier.

Peterson’s work ethic

When Peterson came out of high school, he walked into the Oklahoma training facility and he: 

  • Was 6’2″
  • 216 pounds
  • Jumped 39 inches in the vertical jump
  • Jumped 10’7′ in the broad jump
  • Ran a 4.42 40 yard dash

When he came out of college about 3.5 years later he:

  • Was 6’2″
  • 217 pounds
  • Jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical jump
  • Jumped 10’7″in the broad jump
  • Ran a 4.40 40 yard dash

Physically, Adrian Peterson works hard enough to maintain what he was born with. Take that as you wish.

As far as on the field, if you look at his Yards Per Carry (YPC) -arguably the most important statistic for a running back- his freshman season at Oklahoma was his best, and up until this past year, his rookie season was his best in the NFL. Again, based off the numbers, Peterson has worked hard enough to maintain things.

Peterson’s healing ability

Peterson does not have some super healing ability. The guy broke his collarbone in college and had to miss seven games. He broke it in October, and in April at the NFL combine said “It’s 90% healed.” That is a LONG time for a bone to heal. He was supposed to be out 4-6 weeks (note: average timeline for average person), yet missed 8. If he was superhuman he would have been back in 2-3 weeks.

His sophomore year of college he had a high ankle sprain and basically wasn’t healthy for a month (3 games). In 2011 he missed a month because of the same injury. (Average timeline for average person.) In high school I had a high ankle sprain and missed two games. Don’t tell me it wasn’t serious. I was on crutches, in the emergency room, told it was probably broken, then told it would have been better if it was broken, and had bruising from my toes to my knee. It was a very serious ankle injury. My teammate had the same injury -he was in the hospital with me- and came back in 3 weeks. And we’re nothing athletically compared to Peterson.

Never mind the fact while everyone is claiming he has amazing healing ability now, yet when he was coming out of college everyone was questioning his healing ability.

By his own injury history, Peterson’s ability to heal is average. He even came back from his ACL exactly when he was supposed to. The unusual aspect of his ACL recovery was not how fast he came back, it’s how well he came back.

The meniscus and MCL

It appears Peterson did not injure his meniscus or MCL. Only his ACL and LCL. This is rare as most ACL injuries have concomitant meniscal and or MCL tears. Obviously, the less damage to the knee, the better.

A more reasonable explanation

When I went through my own ACL reconstruction I came across this branch of ACL research referred to as “copers.” Copers are people who tear their ACLs, wait until the pain and swelling goes down (maybe a week or two), then run off as if nothing ever happened. John Elway appears to be one of those guys. Dejuan Blair, an NBA basketball player, apparently doesn’t have ACLs either. And Hines Ward has gone most of his life without one.

You also have those who are born without ACLs and are fine. I know one guy who found out he didn’t have ACLs when doctors went inside his knee for the first time around his mid-20s. He played multiple sports all the way up until this point without every having a problem.

Some people think the muscles pick up the slack, some think bone structure has something to do with it, and some think the MCL can pick up the slack.

I think it’s much more reasonable to say Adrian Peterson fits into this category. A guy who doesn’t need / rely on an ACL like most people do. Again, why this happens, I’m not sure. Nobody seems sure. But it’s a hell of lot easier to recover from an ACL injury if you don’t need the ACL to begin with.

A way to corroborate this is Peterson didn’t really come back better than he was. As I mentioned, other than his ACL comeback season his best season was his rookie year.

2012 YPC = 6.0.

2007 YPC = 5.6.

If you take his 2007 yards per carry and multiply it by his 2012 rush attempts:

348 carries * 5.6 yards per carry = 1,949 yards.

Only ~150 yards less than his 2012 season. 2012 is better, but not much. Couple this with the fact he’s in his prime NFL wise and it’s likely the guy knows how to run in the NFL better than he did his rookie year. It’s conceivable Peterson isn’t better physically than he was his rookie year, but he’s better as a running back. (Vision, understanding of the game, etc.)

What happened

  • Peterson had the same surgeon and rehab protocol as tons of other players who never make it back.
  • He’s no more physically gifted than many other NFL players who’ve had ACL surgery and didn’t make it back.
  • He may work hard, but it’s doubtful he works any harder than other NFL guys who’ve had this surgery.
  • He doesn’t have any special healing powers.
  • He didn’t have a meniscus or MCL tear with his ACL tear, which is unusual.
  • He didn’t come back quicker than other players who’ve had this surgery; he came back better.
  • Some people don’t need ACLs.
  • He’s playing at pretty much the same level he did his rookie year. For 99% of players, this is a bad thing. Peterson started at such a high level he can get away with it. (Same thing in college.) Basically, the seasons where Peterson had the most to prove: His freshman year at OU, his rookie year in the NFL, his ACL comeback year, is when he had his best seasons.

Here’s what I think happened: Peterson tears his ACL and LCL, an ACL he doesn’t need and an LCL which is an easy recovery. BUT, he doesn’t tear his meniscus or MCL, something he would need and something which can share the work of the ACL.

After recovering from the surgery, at about 3 months he’s pretty much training like a normal off-season timeline wise, and health wise, but nobody knows that. His ACL is still healing, but he doesn’t need it to begin with.

Then, you get a guy who’s so gifted athletically he only needed to work hard enough to maintain what he was born with, and you suddenly have him working harder because he finally has something to prove again (“I’m coming back from this injury!”).

Next, you give him an easy preseason. He doesn’t get beat up like so many other players during training camp. He comes into the season fresh and ready to tear someone’s head off.

And, well, you get a guy who has his best season yet.

The perfect confluence of events for someone looking to have a great ACL comeback story.

Nobody likes this explanation, but more than likely, when it comes to his ACL recovery, Adrian Peterson was insanely lucky.

While you might not play football like him, you don’t need to be Adrian Peterson to have a smooth ACL recovery. Want to see how to start ACL recovery off on a great note? Take a look at The most important phase of ACL rehab.

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