When he played for the Minnesota Vikings early in his career, Rich Gannon was back on the field just six months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament before.
The Chiefs’ trio of ACL survivors — running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki — had about 10 months of rehab before they rejoined their teammates for practice at the start of training camp in July.
Things worked out well enough for Gannon, who moved on to the Chiefs and later Oakland, where he was the NFL’s MVP in 2002. So the Chiefs have nothing to worry about with Charles, Berry and Moeaki, right?
Maybe. And maybe not.
“Most people don’t know what it takes to come back from this injury and this surgery,” said Gannon, who now calls games as an analyst for CBS. “There’s a lot that goes into it. It takes time. You have to get comfortable, get that confidence back that your knee is strong enough to absorb the pounding. Eventually, you have to get to the point where you’re not thinking about it.
“Just from the twisting and torqueing and all of that stuff, you’re going to have inflammation, and they’ll have to take care of that. They’ll have to ice their knees all the time. Once you have that injury and have that surgery, you can almost guarantee yourself another 45 to 60 minutes of rehab a day for the rest of your career. You have to take extra time warming it up. You’ve got to make sure you cool down properly and ice it. You have to make sure you listen to your body.”
So there’s a danger in counting on these three players to the extent the Chiefs are. The Chiefs during the offseason signed a veteran free agent at each of their respective positions, but they still need Charles, Berry and Moeaki to return healthy if they’re to make a success of this season.
So far, the results with the three players have been encouraging. Each has played in all of the team’s preseason games.
“They’re as healthy as they can be,” Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. “Knock wood, they’re as healthy as they can be up to this point. It’s just a matter of time will tell.”
The story time tells could be different for each of the three players.
“There’s a fairly wide variability from one person to the next,” said Ronald Grelsamer, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and knee surgeon at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. “Some people bounce back very quickly. With other people, it really takes a long time. A professional athlete has resources that most people don’t have. They have access to all the most modern equipment. They’ve had all the time they need to do a proper rehabilitation. They don’t have to do this on their lunch break. So they’ll get back to what they were more quickly than the average person.
“But you still worry. There are athletes who still don’t get back to what they were before the injury and before the surgery. They just don’t get that muscle strength back. So there’s really no guarantee.”
The Chiefs have plenty at stake. They believe they’ve built a strong contender for the AFC West championship and that task becomes more challenging if any of the three don’t return as strong as they were before.
The Chiefs led the NFL in rushing in 2010, but their production dropped off greatly last season after Charles left the lineup. The Chiefs lost Berry a handful of plays into the season and promptly allowed 89 points without him in their first two games. Moeaki caught 47 passes as a rookie in 2010; without him, Chiefs tight ends caught a total of 34 last season.
The Chiefs gave each player some rest during training camp, but their workloads were similar to what they would have been had they not been injured.
“I think after they take that first hit and they realize that they didn’t hurt the knee, they can play and do what they’ve done in the past,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. “Once they get over that, then I think they’re good to go. That’s been my experience from what I’ve seen. Then they say, ‘Hey, the knee held up. It’s strong, and I can do what I need to do.’ So now they kind of forget about it and can start concentrating more on playing the game.”
While the issue is troublesome for Berry and Moeaki, it’s particularly menacing for Charles.
“Running back would be one of the most difficult positions to have this injury,” Gannon said. “Those guys run up between the tackles and you just don’t who’s going to hit you and where it’s coming from. He’s running through a hole and all of a sudden Charles is going to have a linebacker going down to that knee.
“I think it will be different for all of them. Moeaki will be doing some pushing, pushing around guys who are a lot of times bigger than him. That will make things hard for him, at least at first. For Eric Berry, it shouldn’t be as difficult. He just has to get guys down to the ground.”
Charles is also arguably more important to the Chiefs’ success.
“The return of Berry is so important to this defense, so I don’t think they will give up the points that they did last year,” former Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt said. “And Moeaki is important to the Chiefs, too. He’s a good player but Charles is a great player. Anytime you have somebody like Charles who can score a touchdown anytime he touches the ball, that’s great. It looks to me like he’s a wiser, more confident player. You can see how hard he worked in the offseason to get healthy. I think you can see how much football means to him. A lot of guys take rehab as a vacation. I think he went down there to (noted orthopedic surgeon James) Andrews in Pensacola, and if Dr. Andrews told him to work three hours a day, I think he worked four.
“When you talk to Charles, he has no apprehension. Some people in his situation like for you to believe they’re not worried. This guy is not worried. He shocked me how confident he is. The transition period comes until he gets hit the first time. Then it’s over. Most of these guys, a high percentage of them, that have this surgery come back and are stronger than ever because they work so much on rehabilitation.”
Charles, Berry and Moeaki appeared to take their rehabs seriously. They didn’t practice with the Chiefs during the offseason, when they worked off to the side with team trainers instead.
But each moved with such agility in those workouts that it appeared they could have practiced then.
“I’m going to work hard and let the hard work pay off on Sundays,” said Charles, who was talking for himself but could have been speaking for Berry and Moeaki as well. “That is why I am here. I am here to get better, so every day I come in, I work hard.”