When Lynn Dickey watched the replay of Tamba Hali’s legs whipping into Derek Sherrod, he instantly knew what had happened.
Dickey, the former Green Bay Packers quarterback, blurted out that Sherrod, the team’s first-round draft pick, had broken his lower right leg. Friends he was watching with protested it might be the knee, but Dickey was sure.
He was right.
Sherrod’s injury turned out to be the same — both bones broken in the lower leg — as the one Dickey suffered against the Los Angeles Rams in the ninth game of the 1977 season.
“(Hali’s) legs just whipped around and hit him,” Dickey said. “It’s got to be a perfect angle, and all things just need to be perfect in all the horrible ways for it to happen, and it did. I could tell it immediately.”
For Packers fans who remember Dickey’s devastating injury, or the similar injury that gifted cornerback Willie Buchanon suffered in 1973, news of Sherrod’s broken tibia and fibula had to be alarming. Dickey and Buchanon went on to have good careers, but neither was the same player after the injury.
Dickey missed basically two full seasons of his prime and went from being a passer with limited mobility to one with no mobility. Buchanon would break his leg a second time two years later, and though he was voted to three Pro Bowls, never had the Pro Football Hall of Fame career that appeared to be his destiny.
Sherrod is fortunate it’s 2011 rather than the 1970s. His prognosis is much better because of improved medical procedures and implants that help the bone fully heal. Depending on the type of the break, it might be that a player is better off with this injury than, for instance, a torn ACL, because there’s less chance for problems such as arthritis down the road.
Still, Sherrod’s injury is costly for the Packers because it slows the development of a talented but raw young player at a position of need. Sherrod was likely the front-runner to start at left tackle next season, but to beat out Marshall Newhouse he badly needed an offseason in the Packers’ workout and skills program.
Sherrod’s recovery is difficult to project because it depends on seeing the X-rays of his break and knowing how his surgery went on Monday, information available only to him, his doctors and the upper reaches of the Packers’ coaching and personnel departments. A generic recovery time is about six months, according to sports medicine specialists, but the injury is patient-specific enough that it can vary substantially.
Doctors have told Sherrod his recovery will take “months.” That suggests Sherrod will miss much or maybe even all the Packers’ offseason work, which begins in mid-March or early April, depending on how far they advance in the playoffs, and through organized team activities that usually end in mid-June and a mandatory three-day minicamp in late June.
Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross sustained a broken tibia in mid-November 2009 and returned to 11-on-11 work seven months later, at OTAs in mid-June 2010. If Sherrod’s recovery is a little shorter, say six months, he’s back in late June, right around the final minicamp. If it’s five months, he’ll still miss the critical individual work earlier in the spring but will get in some practice in the OTAs. But if it’s seven months, he’s not back until the start of training camp, and if it’s longer, he’ll fail his pre-camp physical and miss part of camp.
So unless he’s back in three or four months, Sherrod’s chances for winning the starting job have diminished. He’s not like Gross, who was a seasoned and skilled seven-year starter when he broke his leg. Sherrod needs to add strength in the weight room and extensive one-on-one training on blocking techniques and knee bend. He was supposed to get that this offseason.
There’s also the question of whether a major injury will degrade a player or make him more susceptible to future problems, though among serious injuries, the outlook for a broken leg is good.
“This is one that once it’s healed it shouldn’t predispose this player to much of anything in the future, assuming it heals correctly,” said Dr. David McAllister, an orthopedic surgeon for the UCLA athletics department.
Not so for Dickey and Buchanon.
The Packers had been plagued by problems at quarterback since Bart Starr’s injury-sped decline in the late 1960s, until Starr as head coach traded John Hadl, defensive back Ken Ellis and two draft picks (a fourth-rounder and third-rounder) to Houston for Dickey in 1976.
Dickey had mobility problems dating to a dislocated hip when he was with the Oilers in 1972, but they would get worse. In his second season as the Packers’ starter in ’77 he broke both bones in his lower left leg.
He had surgery to implant a plate in his leg the next day, and in the spring of ’78, doctors removed the plate and he began working out. But the pain in his shin was nearly unbearable, and after visiting several doctors he found out the break had not healed. The outside of the bones had calcified, but inside was a small space, and running caused the bone to flex and hurt like he was being hit “with an ice pick.”
Several therapies failed to stimulate bone growth before and after he failed his pre-camp physical. He missed the season and had surgery to place a rod in his leg in January 1979. He wasn’t healthy enough to regain his starting job until late that season.
“While (non-union) is not likely to happen (these days) to a younger athlete who undergoes an operative procedure for a broken bone, that can happen,” McAllister said. “And if it does a second procedure could be necessitated and he could miss another year, just like what happened to that quarterback. That probably would be unusual in this day and age, though.”
Dickey could throw with any quarterback in the NFL and ended up having a good career that included leading the league in passing yards in 1983. But he missed two years of his prime, and his mobility went from limited to nonexistent.
“It was definitely a setback,” Dickey said. “If I’d played any other position, I probably couldn’t have played.”
Buchanon was a phenom as the Packers’ first-round draft pick in ’72 (No. 7 overall) and was a key to their NFC Central Division title that season. He had four interceptions and was voted NFC rookie of the year.
But in Week 6 in ’73 he broke both bones in his left leg, then sustained the same injury two years later. He was gifted enough to be selected to three Pro Bowls after his first broken leg — he was voted to the Pro Bowl in ’73 even though he was hurt — but the injury might have cost him a Hall of Fame career.
“I didn’t get to see him enough after the injury,” said Pat Peppler, the Packers’ scout who drafted Buchanon, “but information I was getting from the Packers was he was still a darn good corner, but (the injury) did take a lot from him.”
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