Bell: Ronnie Brown looks strong in camp
October 21, 2007. The Miami Dolphins are facing the New England Patriots. Running back Ronnie Brown is on the field during a passing play that results in a Patriot interception. Switching into defensive mode, Brown moves into position to help make the tackle. He plants his right foot to cut back across the field, but his knee does not cooperate.
"All of a sudden it felt weird like, you know, my quad and everything tightened up and I was like 'What's going on?'" Brown recalls now. He remembers the team physician coming over to him, testing his ACL and telling him that it was not responding the way that it should. Brown says his first thought at the time was "not right now."
"Obviously we were in a bad situation as far as winning games, and you know, for myself personally I was having a fairly decent season," Brown said.
Fairly decent? At the time of his injury Brown was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and was averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The Dolphins may have been winless, but he gave them (and fantasy owners) something to cheer about. This was not the time for him to suffer a major injury. In fact, Brown did not initially believe the injury was that bad, despite the news he had been given. He says he only felt "a little bit" of pain and was able to walk off the field -- not typical after suffering a complete ACL tear -- leading him to think that he would return in a week or two. But Brown quickly realized the seriousness of the problem. By the time he hit the shower he could feel that his knee was already less stable than when he walked off the field. A subsequent MRI confirmed the on-field assessment, and Brown's season ended prematurely.
Fast forward to August 12, 2008. Brown is in training camp, and it is almost 10 months since he underwent reconstructive surgery on his injured right knee. The questions are simple. How does the knee feel now? Is he going to be fully ready to start the season? Will he be the Ronnie Brown everyone came to know and love in 2007? Oh yes, and does he play fantasy football?
To hear Brown tell it, some of the answers are straightforward.
Brown insists that the knee feels good. "I've participated every day [in camp]," he said. "I'm progressing pretty good No swelling so that's a good sign." He believes that after recovering from the physical demands of camp, he will be ready for the start of the season. He says he would like to put up better numbers than last year.
When I asked Brown to rate his percentage of recovery so far, he couldn't give me a number, but seemed to think that any deficit he deals with currently has more to do with the rigors of camp than his knee specifically. He indicated that with the two-a-day practices, sometimes his knee is sore afterward and sometimes he doesn't feel it at all. Some days he feels like he can make good cuts and be explosive. Other than being tired from camp, he said that he feels "pretty much back to normal." Brown was quick to add that he believes that by Week 1 he will be at 100 percent.
As far as the answer to whether Brown plays fantasy football, he doesn't. But when asked if he knew that there were a lot of people who do, he quickly said "I do!" I told him that a number of those people happen to be interested in Ronnie Brown, to which he responded emphatically "I'm back! I feel good. Actually I feel better coming into camp than I did before. Maybe that was a good thing coming out of this. I didn't take any licks after the injury, just had to come back as far as rehabbing the knee but physically I didn't get beat up last year, you know, missing 10 games." Brown also felt that he came into camp in better shape this year, due at least in part to spending the entire offseason at the Dolphins' facility with the Dolphins' staff supervising his rehabilitation efforts. It was clear that Brown wanted fantasy owners to draft him with confidence.
Is Ronnie Brown a sleeper or over-rated at No. 18 in ESPN.com's player rankings?
But should they? I'll leave that bit of analysis to my colleague Christopher Harris, who tells you where Brown should rank on your draft boards.
What I can tell you is this. There are things about Brown's recovery and his outlook that are overwhelmingly positive. Brown performs well on the practice field. He shows no hesitation to run hard, cut sharply and take contact, all of which I witnessed during practice. He does not appear to favor his right leg at all. He appeared to run a little tight at the start of practice, but quickly loosened up with activity. Although his speed may not have reached his maximum potential, there was nothing overt in his physical skills that would suggest that he has any significant residual deficit. He has a bright outlook and feels confident in his knee. Despite the fact that Brown's knee is not 100 percent yet, the punishment his body was spared by missing 10 games last season translates into a fresher start in 2008.
There is also evidence to suggest that, though Brown has an excellent chance to return to form, the time frame for him to do so is likely to be gradual. There is historical perspective here. Running backs and wide receivers, the two skill positions most likely to suffer an ACL injury, typically take more than one year to return to pre-injury form. A study published in 2006 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine measured performance in NFL running backs and receivers (yards rushing and receiving and touchdowns scored) following ACL reconstruction and found a decline of approximately 30 percent when compared to pre-injury numbers. We can also look at individual measures in high profile players to see a reflection of this decline. For example, Edgerrin James averaged 4.4 yards per carry the year before his ACL injury but only 3.6 yards per carry the year following his surgery. Jamal Anderson averaged 4.5 yards per carry the year before ACL injury, then 3.6 yards per carry the year after surgery. As with every trend, there are exceptions, including Jamal Lewis, who had virtually no change in his statistics (4.4 yards per carry before, 4.3 yards per carry after). There are other variables that can impact a running back's ability to perform that have nothing to do with the surgery itself (offensive line strength, frequency of touches, etc.), and those should be taken into account. Nonetheless, the trend exists.
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Combine that data with the fact that Ricky Williams has reportedly looked good throughout training camp (to which I can attest during my visit) and that, on the day I was in attendance, Williams and Brown split the number of carries in 11-on-11 drills evenly. According to various observers who had been present throughout camp, this pattern has been consistent since the start. Although there is no official word from the Dolphins as to how the duties will be divided between the running backs, it appears to be shaping up, at least initially, to be a significant time share. It makes sense. Brown, although he has been impressive, is nonetheless coming off major surgery and will have to readjust to game situations. Williams has been performing well. Why not ease Brown back into the role and take advantage of multiple weapons?
It will be interesting to see how all of the changes in Miami unfold in 2008. There will be new management, new coaching, new play calling, a new signal-caller under center and a new tandem partner for Brown in the backfield. Brown says he and his knee are ready for action. We will find out just how ready very soon.
Stephania Bell is an injury expert for ESPN Fantasy. She is a physical therapist who is a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
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