Looking more in depth at Darrelle Revis’ ACL comeback (why so many NFL players don’t make it back)

Posted on August 14, 2015

(Last Updated On: March 27, 2016)

In a recent profile of Darrelle Revis in Sports IllustratedRevis mentioned the difficulty he had coming back from his reconstructive ACL surgery.

  1. He was injured in September 2012, and didn’t start running again until May 2013. 

-> I don’t know what they mean by running here. Straight line, light running typically takes place within a few months post-op. Some, often NFL guys, will start week 8 of recovery. If Revis wasn’t doing this until May, that’s a slow recovery.

2.  He considered retirement.

3.  He didn’t feel 100% until a month into the 2014 season.

-> Revis also “revealed” he had microfracture surgery. According to multiple (wrong) media outlets, this was something kept quiet until now. But the NFL network did a profile on him when he got injured, and showed when they were in the hospital with him filming the surgeon, the surgeon stating he had to punch some holes in the cartilage (this is the definition of microfracture), and that recovery would subsequently take longer. 

Revis tore his knee up in September 2012. He felt 100% about October 2014. Two years.

Two years!

Adrian Peterson is always the benchmark now. Let’s look at Peterson vs. Revis before their NFL careers started.


Adrian Peterson Combine Numbers


Darrelle Revis Combine Numbers

These are practically identical people. Peterson does not have a leg up on Revis when it comes to athleticism. The only standout thing above is Revis is a lot quicker.

-> To be fair, Revis may have run on a track since his numbers were at his pro day, where Peterson ran on field turf at the combine. A rubber track is harder than field turf, so times will tend to be faster. Revis also had an extra month to prepare, although that may not matter too much. It matters enough practically all, especially high profile, draft picks should do things at their pro day. You likely have a faster surface to run on, you get to do things at your pace, you get extra time to prepare. I’m always surprised how many guys bother with the combine, when many are only ~6 weeks from in-season play. You’re barely recovered from the season at that point. A tenth of a second can make or break your draft stock. Might as well do everything you can to attain that extra tenth.

I’ve gone over this before, but it’s important again to note, in the context of NFL players, Adrian Peterson is not an outlier when it comes to athleticism, nor is he when it comes to healing in general. It’s not why his recovery is an outlier.

James Andrews, Adrian Peterson’s ACL surgeon, has said in his group’s research -they probably do more NFL ACLs than anyone- about 50% of 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. 

I’ve discussed how few everyday people make it back. Only 65% return to their previous activity level, and that doesn’t mean they’re returning to high level activity ala the football type. 65% are returning to their previous activity level, which may only be jogging. The numbers are even worse for everyday people and high level activity.

  1. Full ACL recovery doesn’t happen for the majority. Professional athlete or not.
  2. Full ACL recovery, if it does happen, can take upwards of two years.

And this where it’s poignant to discuss Darrelle Revis’ recovery. It took him two years to fully recover, but

 3.             Most NFL players aren’t even around at that point.

I’ve talked a lot about how hard it is to recover from ACL surgery, and I’ve used professional athletes, football players often, as an example of this. That if these guys are having such a hard time doing it, the everyday person needs to put their situation in perspective. You are not a professional athlete, you don’t have their body, you don’t have their resources. If anything, it’s going to be harder.

But a huge caveat to this, one in which I haven’t gotten to before, is professional athletes, particularly NFL players, have their own unique challenges in recovery. They’re trying to get back to an activity much more demanding than everyday people are. But they do have a body and resources everyday people don’t. So that’s sort of a wash. The more noteworthy aspect of NFL players is they have the careerspan of a thoroughbred. The average NFL career being 3.5 years.

It’s reasonable to say most NFL players tear their ACL at least a year into their career. At least a third into their career. By the time the expected (though unlikely) recovery can take place, ~9 months, they are two-thirds of the way to being euthanized.

In reality, most will not feel normal from ACL surgery until the 18 month mark. For most NFL guys, by the time they play for some time (1 year or more), tear their ACL and recover (18 months or more), they are going to be around or most likely past the NFL average career mark. They’re already “old as fuck.” This might be hard to wrap your head around, but at twenty five years old, most NFL players are over the hill.

So, by two years after surgery, they’re already past the average NFL career. In one respect, James Andrews statement “50% aren’t even in the league two years after ACL surgery” is a “well, of course.” Two years after ACL surgery is likely three years or more NFL career wise. Not only are most ACL victims gone, most NFL players are gone.

  • You play one season
  • You tear your ACL sometime during season two
  • Two years later, season four, you’re 3.5 years into your career. You’re in the minority if you make it past this point regardless, never mind having to come back from ACL surgery.

-> This is where our culture around athletes, and the most popular sport in America, is…unusual. If you were to ask a parent “Would you want your children to go into a career lasting an average of 3.5 years, enduring incredible violence, high risk of significant debilitation by 25 years old, higher risk by 40 years old, with very limited options once it’s over?” None would say yes. “Would you want your child to be a professional football player?” How many say yes?

If you’re an average guy ACL recovery wise, 18 months to feel 100% again, or even longer, your ass is probably gone by the time you’re 100%. Many won’t even get a chance to reach 100%. What if you tear your ACL year five? You’re already on borrowed time. This coupled with how hard recovery is already…it almost doesn’t matter when you tear it. Once it happens, everyone around you, coaches, owners, GMs, the audience, knows you’ve likely already been flipped on your side in broad daylight, and shot in the face. The difference is the horse is put out of misery; yours was just getting started.

The Revis exception

Where Revis is an outlier is the guy is so damn good at his job, he can get away with taking longer to recover. He has so much clout, teams will put up with him for a while -pay him money for not playing or not playing as well- in the hopes he’ll be what he was. Or for him, even 90% of what he was. There are very few players with this clout. He’s truly a once or twice in a generation cornerback (and definitely better than Richard Sherman (who doesn’t play both sides of the field, doesn’t *always* match up with the other team’s best receiver, and has had a way better team around him throughout the years)).

But let’s not fool ourselves with the ruthlessness of the NFL. Even Darrelle Revis was sent packing from New York to Tampa Bay the season he tore his ACL The Jets were willing to take a 12 million dollar cap hit to do this toomeaning they were paying for Revis to not be on their team.

“At nine months we were hoping for a full recovery. It’s May, Darrelle is 8 months post surgery, and he just started running again??? Adrian looked like a cyborg at that point. This isn’t looking good. Let’s see what we can trade him for.”

This is one of the best cornerbacks of all-time, in his prime, but New York got rid of him quicker than Justin Bieber could derail his career. And only for one good and one average draft pick! That’s scrap meat for a guy of Revis’ caliber…except when he’s coming off ACL surgery, and doing it very slowly. There may be no other business which moves as quick as the NFL. (Maybe a NFL team could teach Bieber how to Move. On. SELENA DOESN’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE!)

-> I’ve illustrated how serious insurance companies take this surgery. I’m now illustrating how serious NFL teams take it. These institutions are highly profitable for a reason. The moment that ACL tears you are damaged goods. Damaged goods which may be able to be repaired, but the insurance companies, the NFL teams, they know it’s unlikely. An insurance company has no desire to find out, a NFL team has a never ending bag of goodies to pick from. You better be a DAMN good goody for them to wait on you.

At the time, New York also tried to say it was about money. They didn’t want to pay him the ~$16 million per year he seemed to want (even though none of it was guaranteed), but the Bucs were willing to. After one season, the Bucs got rid of him too! They didn’t even trade him, they had to release him. Revis claims two other teams were willing to trade for him, but he “scuttled” the deals because they weren’t contenders. I’m not so sure about that.

The last thing any team wants to do is give a player away for free. And Revis is now back on a horrifically bad team, whose starting quarterback is so loathed he just got his jaw broken by his own teammate. (Seriously.) The more likely scenario is nobody wanted a Revis trade with Tampa, or weren’t willing to give much -still, something is better than nothing- and he had no leverage. They had to release him or overpay him. They release him and, naturally, New England scooped him up at a discount. Revis is notorious for being money hungry. I doubt he went to New England for in effect a one year deal at only $12 million, a 25% pay cut, when another team was offering much more than that. It seems nobody was offering him anywhere near what he wanted.

Currently, because The New York Jets must have drunk Joe Namath on their board to make organization decisions, Revis is back on the Jets, for a bit less than $16 million per year ($14), but now he’s got a whole lot of guaranteed money. $39 million. The Jets paid Revis,

  • $8 million in 2010
  • $25 million in 2011 (big bonus)
  • $7.5 million in 2012

For a total of $40.5 million at the ages of 25, 26, and 27 years old. Currently, the Jets are paying him,

  • $16 million in 2015
  • $17 million in 2016
  • $16 million in 2017

For a total of $49 million at the ages of 30, 31 and 32 years old. This is as smart as a husband and wife hiring a nanny who is younger and hotter than the wife, all while knowing the husband has an affinity for gambling. Wait, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner did what? At least Ben was smart enough to not be out in public with her, have photos taken with her, go to Vegas with her, buy her a car, pay for her hotel, OH COME ON BEN.

The Jets are now paying more money for the same player, who is now older, thirty years old, has a major knee history, at a position where speed and quickness is everything. Speed and quickness being those things players lose first as they age, which are most susceptible to a knee injury. (Just because he feels good now (although see below) doesn’t mean he will continue to.) At 30, I bet Revis already couldn’t match his pro day numbers. Nor is he likely as dominant as he was at 27. But they’re paying him more. Oh, New Yawk.

How many other players would be afforded this opportunity? To be traded away from a city and team that loved you for six years because you were asking for too much money right after a knee injury nobody was sure about, which one was looking bleak the first year+, to then be released from a team who clearly felt you didn’t fit well, so much they sent you away for free, and your knee still isn’t 100%? For most, this = career donezo.

The difference with Revis is why Belichick is smarter than every other person in the NFL. Revis Island was so damn exotic, you’ll give it the amount of time it needs to recover from a tough storm. After a couple years, if it doesn’t return, it’s probably not coming back. Even if it could, after a couple years, by then you’re off to some other younger, more exotic, kinkier, doesn’t use your credit card as much island. Honestly, most islands you wouldn’t wait too long for. Maybe a year, because you’ve already shelled out money for your next trip, but after that, there are too many others out there. Every year a new island turns 18. But some, ohhhh some, they just know how to make your hair stand up. Provided they show some hope of not being crazy anymore, you’ll give it some extra time. They all get older though, and some of them, christ, some islands require way too much maintenance. HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED? After a few years, they’ll be gone no matter what.

Hence, Belichick let Revis go back to New York this year. No corner, especially a 30 year old one with what, two prime years left?, if that, is worth that much money. The guy makes more than Tom Brady.

“Hahahahaha! New York wants him? Of course they do. Alright, make it look like we want him so they spend even more money on him. Knowing those morons, they’ll give up half their salary cap to sign him, and sell it to their fans as some homecoming nonsense. That’s fine by us. We’ll still see them in the Super Bowl in two thousand and never. This is almost better than hearing the Bills hired Rex Ryan, the coach who forgets he’s not supposed to sack his own quarterbacks. Call Brady up. Tell him he should take the first month of the season off anyways. The way the division is looking, I’ll put Edelman at QB those four games and we’ll still win the division.”

Reporter to Belichick “Bill! How tough is it losing Revis to division rival New York?”

Belichick [Blank stare, “don’t laugh, don’t smile, remember, you’re a stone cold stunner”] “Darrelle is a great player. I wish him luck. We’re moving on.”


Underappreciated factors

While he didn’t enjoy his season in Tampa Bay, Revis may have lucked out being there his first season back from surgery.

Revis didn’t enjoy playing cover two for the Bucs. Compared to playing straight-up man coverage, what Revis is known for, cover two doesn’t ask as much of your corners. Athletically, it’s a big step down from man coverage. While Revis didn’t enjoy playing in this defense, it may have been the best way to come back from surgery. A year with much less demand on his body in a way ACL recovery is toughest (insanely intense cutting back and forth), where he’d be less of a focus in the defense and less of a focus in the city (because everyone is feeling too damn hot and disgusting to worry about anything else).

Also, it gave those in charge of personnel, like Belichick, the perspective of “Well, he may not have played as well as he has in the past, but he was in a new defense, one in which he didn’t like. He may have that man to man skill still, but we won’t know until we let him try. If we can get him at a discount, let’s do it. It’s worth the risk. Worst case, we’ll force him to play some cover two again, then we’ll get rid of him.”

This is one of those environmental scenarios we don’t look at much, because really, a lot of times it’s dumb luck. Revis didn’t decide to go to Tampa. When Revis was injured, after meeting the Jets new GM and expressing his desire to stay with New York, the GM promptly traded him two days later. Meaning while Revis was expressing his desire to stay in New York, the GM was saying,

“That’s wonderful Darrelle. I look forward to us being a part of this organization together, and building something substantial,”

but in his head,

“My five year old son could beat you in a race right now. You’re no where near being back. Did I download the trade block app yet? Cause you’re being put on the block the moment I turn around.”

If Revis stayed on the Jets, played man to man again, while not being 100%, who knows how that would have gone down. It may have hurt him mentally. “Damn, I don’t know if I can still do this.” But he got nearly two years post injury before he went back to what he was known for.

Is he even 100%?

From the SI profile again,

“Back in Manhattan, Revis stops at a private showroom on 38th Street. He’s shopping for a suit. Only, the elevator is out of order, and as he climbs to the fifth floor, he crouches to stretch his knees. “I’m going to need disability when I’m done,” he jokes.”

First, do we think this happened to Revis when he was in his mid-twenties? Do you see what I mean New York?

Second, just because a guy is playing at 100%, doesn’t mean they feel that way. This is something else I’ve wondered about those who do make it back from ACL surgery, how do they actually feel? Between the adrenaline of a NFL game, the pain killing drugs, in conjunction with the fact these guys hold an extreme ability to block out pain…you might be a lock down corner, but you might also have trouble going up a flight of stairs at 30 years old.

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