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Jimmy Graham Versus Football’s Sneaky Career-Ruiner, the Torn Patellar Tendon

The Seattle Seahawks have been broadcasting a message about their All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to anyone who will hear it: "We are not worried." History suggests it's not so simple.
July 11, 2016, 6:14pm
Photo by Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Seahawks have been broadcasting a message about their All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who suffered a season-ending injury last November, to anyone who will hear it: "We are not worried."

The trade was a "great long-term decision." They're "very optimistic." Everything's "really in good shape." There's still no timeline for Graham's return, but Seattle has put out enough happy feelings about his recovery to vicariously heal us all.

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I could suspend my disbelief if this were an ACL tear or a broken foot or something that most NFL players have to deal with at some point. A torn patellar tendon, however, is a very different injury.

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"Scarring within the tendon can cause chronic pain and limited range of motion. Quad muscle strength—the muscle withers away during the early stages of rehab while the tendon repair heals—may never return, which limits explosiveness," Jene Bramel, a doctor who writes about football and injuries at FootballGuys, told VICE Sports.

This is not an injury to take lightly. Victor Cruz was once a salsa-dancing Super Bowl hero. He wasn't even able to get back on the field last season after his torn patellar tendon in Week 6 of 2014. While rehabbing, Cruz developed a calf strain; it was likely the result of muscle asymmetry, or what Bramel terms a "compensatory injury"—a second injury that develops because of an overreliance on a different muscle while trying to get back up to speed. Some of Cruz's strength and flexibility just wasn't up to par with what the rest of his body was used to.

Torn patellar tendons have left a string of football players limping in their wake. This is the injury that felled former Arizona running back Ryan Williams. It clamped down on the career of Minnesota draftee Greg Childs before he ever took a snap. It ended Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley's career in Cleveland before it even began. Former No. 4 overall pick Cadillac Williams survived the surgery, but was a shadow of himself after it.

We could go on. The point, though, is this: it's not uncommon for this injury to knock multiple years off an athlete's livelihood. Even when it doesn't end a football player's career, it drastically diminishes their skill and staying power. Nate Allen, Patrick Robinson, and Morris Claiborne have all recovered from patellar tendon tears and are active today, but all three are basically journeymen at this point. New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo just retired this offseason over the injury.

Now, there are two factors here that separate Graham from most players. Even at half-speed, he should still be able to win the ball in contested coverage and be, at least, a red zone threat. Think late-career Antonio Gates, laboring off the line of scrimmage and jogging in mud, but somehow still catching balls. The other is that medical technology continues to get better, and Graham benefits from an accumulated wisdom that players like Cadillac Williams didn't have.

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So if anyone could sustain this injury, it's a player like Graham. But, as Bramel concedes, "the odds are against full return to form." And when you think about a player having to get through the rehab process for this injury without any cascade injuries—especially a player who tends to get as dinged up as Graham has—timelines start to feel dicey and meaningless. Graham turns 30 in November. If he weren't a freak of nature at a position that allows him some room for skill slippage, I'd consider him unlikely to make it back.

Jimmy Graham talks with quarterback Russell Wilson during minicamp. Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

After a rocky start in Seattle, Graham seemed like he was starting to click with the Seahawks offense when he went down last year. A healthy Graham gave the Seahawks an uncoverable X-Factor who could erase negative plays. The Seattle offense can function fine without him but, much like Percy Harvin, Graham will likely go down in team history as a player who was supposed to put Seattle over the top and didn't. In the event of his return, the likely scenario is that he's an effective complementary player, not the kind of star the Seahawks thought they were trading Max Unger and a first-round pick for last offseason.

The data tells a different story than the optimistic song-and-dance out of Seahawks camp. We as a media and a culture always welcome the miracle recovery story, because it's heartening to see a player buck the steep odds stacked against him. But you can hope for a Jimmy Graham recovery and still be realistic about his chances against a torn patellar tendon, which has long been football's knockout, career-ending blow.

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