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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins had to put his season on hold to have a chance at becoming top playoff weapon

J.K. Dobbins needed to stop.

It was no easy ask for a man of such restlessness, will and ambition. You watch Dobbins tote a football and these qualities come across, plain as day. Where other running backs, even outstanding ones, would go down, he regains his balance, sees a sliver of space and churns on.

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Dobbins was not himself, however, when he returned to the Ravens after 13 months of grueling work on the left leg in which he’d torn not just his anterior cruciate ligament but his lateral collateral ligament, meniscus and hamstring. He ran hard over the four games he played in September and October, but 3.5 yards per carry? That wasn’t going to cut it for a guy who averaged 6 in his rookie year.

“Me inside, I was feeling like crap,” Dobbins recalled Friday.

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After weeks of consultation with doctors and trusted advisers, he woke in the middle of the night, sure that God had just told him what to do. He didn’t even wait until morning to text Ravens trainer Adrian Dixon. He knew he needed to hit the pause button on his controller and subject his knee to another round with an orthopedic surgeon’s scalpel.

With three months of perspective, we can see Dobbins’ decision was vital to the fortunes of the 2022 Ravens. He came back, with the scar tissue cleaned from his knee, one week after they had lost quarterback Lamar Jackson (also to a knee injury). With their passing game on life support, they needed more explosive plays on the ground, and Dobbins delivered, rushing for a league-best 397 yards over the next four games.

As the Ravens prepare to play the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round of the playoffs, they’re still without Jackson. Dobbins’ powerful backfield partner, Gus Edwards, is coming off a week in concussion protocol. If they’re going to muster enough points to upset the streaking Bengals, Dobbins will likely have to be great. And that might never have been possible had he not put his season on hold.

“It was a big thing,” he said. “I don’t think I would be even close to where I am now. I really feel really, really good, like as close to 100% as I’ve been in a long time.”

“I think it was a big deal,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh agreed. “I think he made a really smart decision to have the surgery. Only he knew how the knee felt, and when they went in, Dr. [Leigh Ann] Curl — who is one of the best in the world at what she does — went in there and saw what she saw in real time, and she said, ‘Hey, this is something that is required.’ So, he did the right thing, and she did a great job, and he’s done an amazing job. Nobody works harder, nobody wants to be back more than J.K.”

Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins scores his second touchdown during game against the Bills on Oct. 2 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Dr. Milford Marchant, an orthopedic surgeon at MedStar Sports Medicine who has worked with professional lacrosse players, said the incidence of significant scar tissue after an athlete has torn multiple knee ligaments, like Dobbins did, is 20-25%. Some opt for rest or injections, but when the knee still doesn’t feel right, a cleanup surgery can offer the best resolution.

“Nobody wants a second surgery,” Marchant said. “But sometimes, it’s such that, ‘Hey, if I’m going to be at peak performance, I’ve got to take care of this.’ The decision then at that point is, ‘Hey, look I’ve got to get back and I’ve got to be me, so let’s go ahead and do this with the thought that in the long run, I’m going to be optimal.’”

Dobbins, who turned 24 last month, had known scar tissue might inhibit him but said some people around him — he would not name names — did not want him to have his knee scoped. It was after he gained just 15 yards on seven attempts in an Oct. 16 loss to the New York Giants that he experienced his wee-hours epiphany.

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Dobbins said there was no comparison between the calm he felt going into his second surgery and his internal tumult after he felt his knee give out in a preseason game the previous year. His high school career in Texas ended abruptly when he damaged ligaments in his ankle, but even that did not prepare him for the patience he would need to rehabilitate his left leg.

“When I got the scope, my mentality was very good,” Dobbins explained after he rushed for 120 yards in his first game back. “I was ready for it. I was prepared for it mentally. When I got injured last year, oh no, that was the worst thing ever. Ever. [It was one of the] top-five hardest moments in my life. But, coming back out here and being able to play and do things like that, it just … It was part of the patience game. I had to learn patience. It just helped me as a person, as a man.”

He’s convinced he will be different in all areas of life because of the tribulations of the last year. “The injury has made me so much more wise,” he said.

Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins carries the ball during a game against the Steelers on Jan. 1 at M&T Bank Stadium.

Dobbins will tell you he’s still not the runner he was two years ago, after the Ravens drafted him in the second round out of Ohio State and he blasted off through the stretch run of his first NFL season. Back then, if he used his one-in-a-million vision and balance to break free, he felt certain no defender would catch him. Today, his right leg is that fast, but his left, the surgically repaired one, feels like it belongs to a different person. He feels this awkwardness most acutely when he enters open space and tries to hit top cruising speed. We saw it when he broke a 44-yard run in his first game back in Pittsburgh.

He explained the feeling recently: “It’s a mix between tightness in my muscle, like my groin area, hip area and my hamstring. And, it feels weaker than the other side. Before I got hurt, I was a 4.3-4.4 [40-yard dash] guy. So, this [right] leg is still super-fast. This [left] leg, the hamstrings weren’t reaching that speed for over a year, over 365 days. So, it’s just tough. … It’s just that extra one or 2 miles [per hour] that are the difference. It’s the last little bit of me; that’s what makes me, me. I’m not all the way there, but I’m getting there.”

Not-quite Dobbins is still the most dangerous offensive weapon the Ravens have and one of the most dynamic pure runners in the league.

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On one carry in the Ravens’ New Year’s Day loss to the Steelers, he spun through a tackle deep in the backfield, stumbled but kept his feet and tunneled through three defenders to turn a potential 4-yard loss into a 2-yard gain. It was as good a short run as you’ll ever see.

“I love J.K.’s passion for the game, number one, and he runs that way,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “When I see a runner, I want to be inspired by a running back, and I want to see passion, and fury and relentlessness — and smart, too — not unchained, but smart. I think he’s really developing vision, maturity, but he definitely has a lot of dog in him, in a good way. He loves ball; he wants to get after it, and I think he runs with that style.”

If the Ravens need to lean on Dobbins extra hard Sunday, he’s ready.

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“I’ve always thought like that,” he said. “Even when Lamar’s playing, I want it on my back.”

Wild-card round

Ravens at Bengals

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Sunday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Bengals by 8 1/2


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