As Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb was in the early stages of rehabilitating his surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament, he watched one of the NFL's brightest stars perform remarkable feats less than a year after suffering a similar injury.
It wasn't that Webb was keeping tabs on Adrian Peterson as the Minnesota Vikings running back chased a 28-year-old NFL record. Webb had been through this injury before and knew the physical and mental toll it took to return.
But as his most recent recovery ramped up, he couldn't help but notice what Peterson was doing.
"Everybody paid attention to AP," Webb said Thursday. "He was chasing the record and had just came off ACL [surgery], so that was a good accomplishment. All I know is he worked his butt off every day. It just shows how hard he worked to get back, and I took that from it. Just show up here every day and grind hard."
On Tuesday — 10 months after his injury — Webb suited up for the first day of training camp for rookies, quarterbacks and veterans with injuries, and while he had limited participation in team drills, the fifth-year cornerback is on target to play in the Ravens' regular-season opener against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 5.
When he trots back onto the field, he will be greeted by greater expectations than the last time he suffered a torn ACL. The Ravens are counting on Webb to blanket wide receivers and be one of the leaders on defense. And Peterson, who was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player at season's end, has raised the bar for Webb and other players returning from ACL tears. Webb knows he must stay on his own schedule, though.
"You can't just look at AP and try to do the same thing AP did," he said. "Everybody has different bodies. I just look at myself and how I feel. But I do bust my butt and want to be that guy."
Webb, who had emerged as one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks, tore the ACL in his left knee during a win over the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 14. After banging knees with wide receiver Dez Bryant, Webb fell to the turf, clutching his knee.
It was the second time in his NFL career that a knee injury had prematurely ended his season. Webb tore the ACL in his right knee in December of his rookie year and returned to the field by the 2010 season opener.
It's too early to tell what kind of player Webb will be this time around, but Peterson proved that you can come back even better than before.
'The gold standard'
On Christmas Eve in 2011, Peterson tore his left ACL and medial collateral ligament against the Washington Redskins. Typically, the recovery from a multiple-ligament injury is more difficult and takes longer than when just an ACL is torn.
But just over eight months later, after Peterson was eased into training camp and held out of preseason games, he started the Vikings' season opener and rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
As the season went on, Peterson got better, averaging 159.8 rushing yards in each of his final 10 games. He finished the regular season with 2,097 rushing yards, 8 shy of the all-time single-season record set by Eric Dickerson in 1984, and carried the Vikings into the playoffs.
Physical therapist Russ Paine, who oversaw Peterson's rehab in Houston, calls the running back "a different kind of animal." He said there were a dozen other NFL players, including Ravens safety James Ihedigbo, rehabilitating various injuries at Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute at the same time. They would just shake their heads as they watched Peterson attack his rehab.
"The drive that someone has in the rehab process makes a big difference," Paine said.
Paine said Peterson is "the gold standard" for ACL recovery because he was so dominant in his first season back. He said it typically takes 12 to 24 months for athletes to get back to where they were before the injury, both physically and mentally.
"His timetable for returning was not abnormal," Paine said. "What was different with him was his level of play. It was ridiculous."
Peterson was the first nonquarterback since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 to be named league MVP, and he finished second to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for Comeback Player of the Year.
"It makes me feel good knowing I set the bar high," Peterson recently told USA Today. "It feels good when … you have shown people an example of how you can come back and be better than you were before when adversity strikes. And when the world predicts the opposite, you show them you not only can be successful but be great.''
Decades ago, A-C-L was another way of spelling doom. Often, tearing the ligament ended a player's career.
But according to Dr. Richard Levine, an orthopedic and sports medicine physician for MedStar Union Memorial Hospital, there have been advancements in medicine, technology and surgical techniques over the past 20 years, and the rehab process has been accelerated.
"But over the past 10 to 15 years, we have been using the same techniques, and the results have not changed that much," said Levine, also an associate team physician for the Ravens.
That's why the timetable for most athletes to return from ACL injuries remains six to 12 months depending on how much damage was done to the knee, cartilage and ligaments. While Levine would not specifically speak about Webb or Peterson, he said it is not uncommon for athletes who underwent ACL reconstructions to "take six months off and have a great year."
But did what Peterson accomplish last season create unreasonable expectations for athletes returning from major knee surgeries such as Webb and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III? Paine believes so.
"Yes, it's tough. It may create a tough situation for people. He set the bar," Paine said. "But one thing about having an ACL injury, you're either worse than you were before the injury or you are better than you were. Very rarely are you exactly the same as you were."
Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who missed the 2001 season after tearing his left ACL in training camp, said the challenge for Webb will be "more mental than anything else.
"It's all about your mindset," said Lewis, who played every game and rushed for 1,327 yards and six touchdowns in his first season back. "What mindset are you in when you are ready to step back on the field? That's the difference, I think, in how a player goes back out and performs. … You need to be mentally strong and say, 'Hey, I'm back to my old self.'"
Lewis said he was fully healthy when the 2002 season began and he believes Webb can play at a high level this season, too. He cautioned, though, that there are no guarantees when it comes to knee injuries, even today.
If Webb needs a reminder of this, he can call his former teammate Domonique Foxworth (Maryland), a fellow cornerback who tore his right ACL in training camp in 2010 and was never the same player.
What's next for Webb?
On Thursday, Webb's activity in 11-on-11 team drills was limited to taking a knee and high-fiving teammates. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Webb is able to do more than what the doctors and trainers are letting him do, but they feel there is no need to push it.
"It's reasonable that he would be playing against Denver with the state of ACL surgery and recovery," Harbaugh said. "That's definitely our target. I think he's got a very good chance to get back and play in the preseason at some point in time, but it's not the most important thing."
Webb said his surgically repaired knee feels good, but he didn't set a timetable for his return.
"I'm just going to keep listening to the trainers, taking it slow — you know, easing my way back into practice," Webb said. "Hopefully I'll be there for the first game."
Given what Peterson was able to do, many outside the Castle will not only expect Webb to be there, but for him to play as well as — if not better than — he did before he shredded that knee ligament.
Asked whether he feels he can physically do all the things he did before his latest injury, Webb flashed a sly grin and said, "I think I can be Lardarius Webb again."
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