During what was a helluva first Sunday to the 2016 NFL season, there was an obvious nadir. Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen’s season is over after he suffered a torn ACL on a minimal contact play against the Chiefs. In four seasons, he will have missed more than 40 percent of his possible regular season appearances.
This is not a new thing for Allen. Yet, somehow, not one of his several season-ending injuries are the same. Last season, he lacerated his kidney. In 2014, he suffered a broken collarbone. In college, he hurt his knee during his final season, but it was his left knee, not the right one he hurt against the Chiefs. It feels less like he’s injury prone, than he is cursed.
Allen is 24 years old and signed a big four-year extension in the offseason, and yet it’s hard not to take stock of his legacy now. He’s on a path to be a never-quite-was, one those players who could have been great but for whatever reason never were what people hoped. The history of the NFL is littered with them. We may come to think of him like Justin Blackmon, or maybe like a Beanie Wells — any player who was once assumed to become a Next Big Thing.
Keenan Allen's parents are outside the Chargers locker room, with glum, pained expressions that mirrored the team's as they walked in— Marty Caswell (@MartyCaswell) September 11, 2016
Allen has time to avoid that fate. The Chargers have already paid for his recovery. His contract is worth $45 million, $20 million of which is sunk. But the clock has started, so to speak. Waiting for players to bust is one of NFL fans’ richest and grossest traditions. Teams are carefully constructed through the draft and free agency, so we’re constantly grading roster moves. But the seed of this constant evaluation and analysis is the failures and misfortunes of individuals.
The good news for Allen is that he’s playing in the era of the NFL comeback. Sunday was a great example. A large number of players played well who, to this point, were headed for ignominy. Jadeveon Clowney returned from injury to record a sack and generally menace the Chicago Bears. Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Breshad Perriman had to wait 16 months to make his first career catch, but it was beautiful. Terrelle Pryor emerged from rubble to become a starting wide receiver for the Browns. Melvin Gordon looked like a bust a season ago, and a legitimate starter Sunday as he ran in two touchdowns after being held out of the end zone in his first 16 games.
Then there was the best example, the pinnacle of Week 1: Victor Cruz shaking his booty after nearly two years — 721 days to be exact — without scoring a touchdown. He tore his patellar tendon on Sept. 21, 2014, and was a long shot to ever get back in salsa dancing form. The injury is historically one of the most difficult to return from. Players like running back Cadillac Williams, safety Jim Leonhard and linebacker Jerod Mayo all retired early after great pre-patellar tear careers.
It’s too early to say Cruz is back, but after four catches for 34 yards and one long-missed touchdown celebration, the vague feeling surrounding his career is much more positive than Allen’s. Maybe he won’t be catching 10 passes a game anymore, but he won’t be disappearing, either, and that was a legitimate fear. On Sunday, only Odell Beckham Jr. and Shane Vereen were targeted more often by Eli Manning.
That’s hope for Allen who, mind you, has already been definitively great even while battling injuries. Only eight players have ever caught at least 200 passes before their 24th birthday. Through seven games last season, he was on pace for almost 142 season receptions, just shy of Marvin Harrison’s NFL record of 143. Allen doesn’t necessarily need extra motivation to get back. He’s a brilliant, smooth route runner and pass catcher. No one should have to be convinced of his potential at this point.
But Cruz’s example, and that of a number of players — two of the NFL’s best, Adrian Peterson and Von Miller, got better after tearing their ACLs — can only help, especially for a player as disheartened as Allen must be. This is a player who admitted that he almost quit football after Week 1 of his rookie season because he couldn’t comprehend why he wasn’t living up to his high expectations. His psyche was tested then, on a thick depth chart battling Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal, Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd. It’s cruel and unfair that he should continue to be tested like this.
It’s going to be a long road back for Allen, a road he’s much too familiar with now after four season-ending injuries in five years. He should be fine, but there’s now a small nagging doubt that he won’t be, that this is what his legacy will be. There is a subset of people right now ready to mark this as just another sucker punch to a franchise that is perpetually gasping (by the way, the Chargers blew a 24-3 lead to lose in overtime), and Allen as a bullet point on a long list of disappointing players.
But Allen’s path to never-quite-was goes the same way as his glorious comeback, too. And comebacks are perhaps the best NFL tradition of all.
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