Jordy Nelson jumped the same way he has a “gazillion” times in his 18 years of playing football. He caught a pass, something he’s done 400 times in his career. He landed.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Even after crumpling to the ground at Heinz Field, even after his early departure from Sunday’s preseason game in Pittsburgh, the Green Bay Packers’ receiver casually walked to the locker room.
Barely limping, Nelson thought he was fine.
“If it was a regular-season game,” Nelson said, “I felt like I would’ve walked it off and would’ve tried running on the sideline to see what would happen. Which, thankfully, it wasn’t. Because I could’ve done more damage. So that’s a blessing.”
A small, silver lining for a receiver whose season ended with a torn ACL in his right knee. Nelson did not expound on whether there was more damage to the knee, but said the injury was in “good” shape, considering how bad it could’ve been.
Nelson will have surgery to repair his ACL, but not until swelling lessens. He said his stiff knee must be loose enough for the operating table. Of course, there’s no rush. That’s the thing about ACL injuries. Recovery is projected for six to nine months, sometimes a year. No exceptions.
“Once Doc told me it was an ACL,” Nelson said, “I knew I wasn’t going to play (this season). Obviously, that’s the worst part. … Our goal will be to be back for training camp in 2016.”
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Coach Mike McCarthy said “nothing’s changed” with the Packers. They’re still focused on winning the Super Bowl. That’s not surprising. For a team with two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, a title always is the goal.
McCarthy also expects the Packers to play the same style on offense. Even without a dynamic receiver who stretches a defense vertically like nobody else on their roster, McCarthy said, his team’s identity remains.
“It’s a tough blow to our football team,” McCarthy said, “but as we spoke in the team meeting: Nothing’s changed. Our goal hasn’t changed. When things like this happen, a good system with a good football team, adjustments are made. So we will adjust and keep moving forward.”
It won’t be easy. In 12 victories last season, Nelson averaged 101.5 yards and scored all 13 touchdowns. He was limited to 55.5 yards per game — and held scoreless — in four losses.
Nelson still will be around the team. He attended the receivers’ meeting Tuesday, same as always. Still, his absence on the field leaves a void. When Nelson played well last year, the Packers won. When he didn’t, they lost.
Now, they must learn how to play without him.
“We have great depth,” Nelson said. “We have a great team here. They’ll be able to go out and do what they need to do.”
What Nelson must do is navigate an arduous recovery.
It’s a long haul for him to once again produce at the same, All-Pro level he did a year ago. Two orthopedic surgeons who spoke with Press-Gazette Media on Tuesday said Nelson has a good chance, but nothing is guaranteed.
Dr. Frank Cordasco, a surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, said there are three goals for a professional athlete undergoing ACL surgery. The first is knee stabilization. Then, Cordasco said, physical therapy is targeted for the player to return to their sport, and finally to the level of production experienced pre-injury.
Cordasco said he could not address Nelson’s situation specifically because he does not know all the details. But he expects Nelson’s age — he turned 30 in May — to be more beneficial than problematic.
“I think I’d be more concerned about a rookie who hasn’t played a game in the NFL,” Cordasco said. “I wouldn’t reject him based upon age alone. I think he has a decent chance of getting back to his prior level of sport. It’s just not as predictable as we’d like it to be; it’s not 100 percent.
“In general, I think it’s somewhere between 60 and 80 percent (chance) of getting back to his prior level of success.”
Nelson, like any athlete with ACL surgery, will simply rest and heal in the first month after operation, Cordasco said. The second and third months are spent restoring range of motion with the joint and strengthening the knee.
Starting with the fourth month, Cordasco said, Nelson mostly likely will start activities specific to his job as an NFL receiver.
Recovery is manageable, but challenging. Cordasco said it’s more difficult for skill-position players — receivers, running backs, defensive backs — to heal from ACL surgery than offensive and defensive linemen. There is more running, cutting, jumping and, ultimately, stress on the knee.
“It’s a lot of work,” Dr. Bert Mandelbaum said. “A lot of time. I don’t know who’s going to do his surgery, but it’s going to be a very competent surgeon, and he’s going to have a very competent team around him in terms of physical therapy, trainers, exercise, physiologist, nutritionist and everybody else. His team will really get him back. The prognosis is excellent, I think.”
Nelson said he watched the play multiple times. His injury, he believes, was nothing more than a fluke. An inevitable part of the game. Almost every football player gets injured if they play long enough, he said.
Mandelbaum, a surgeon with Santa Monica Orthopedic in California, said Nelson could have been more at risk for tearing an ACL because of offseason surgery to repair a left hip impingement. Kinetically, he said, a weakness in one lower-body extremity makes other areas more prone for injury.
Cordasco said a left hip surgery can affect a right knee. Even after rigorous testing before returning to the field — something he and Mandelbaum fully expect Nelson received with the Packers — the danger still persists.
“That’s really the smoking gun in many of the situations,” Mandelbaum said of hip weakness. “It’s what we call a lessened hip strategy. I’m speaking generically now, because I don’t know about (Nelson’s) situation, but there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of individuals who tear their ACL with noncontact mechanisms have a default in their hip strategy to control and keep their knee in the right position so they don’t tear their ACL.”
Nelson doesn’t think his ACL injury was connected to hip surgery. After missing most of the Packers’ offseason program, Nelson said, he felt even better in the early parts of training camp than he had expected.
He also had no problems in the preseason opener in New England, catching two passes for 25 yards.
Then, in Pittsburgh, he jumped to catch another pass. When he landed, his season was over.
“It’s just honestly bad timing,” Nelson said. “When you plant and you turn and you explode and put force into it, if you do it I guess at the exact wrong time, it tears. It’s crazy how the body works. It’s crazy that you can make that move a gazillion times over 18 years of playing football — and probably more harsher moves than that — and be fine. Or take a hit and be fine.
“It’s the way it works out. Why? We don’t know. But we’ll move forward and be back next year.”