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What should we expect from Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in 2018 after their ACL injuries?

Quarterbacks who have suffered ACL tears recently in the NFL have done just fine in their returns.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Carson Wentz was a month away from locking up the NFL MVP award in just his second NFL season when disaster struck. The Philadelphia Eagles starter tore his ACL and LCL in a Week 14 win against the Rams, ending his 2017 campaign.

It didn’t slow the Eagles, who went on to win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles instead. But the best-case scenario for Philadelphia is Wentz can return to his MVP form and lead the Eagles for years to come.

The Houston Texans are hoping for the same with Deshaun Watson. The 2017 first-round pick saw his tremendously impressive rookie campaign end early due to an ACL tear suffered in practice. With 19 passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in only seven games, Watson was a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year before his injury, but the award instead went to Saints running back Alvin Kamara.

For Miami Dolphins fans, optimism surrounding Ryan Tannehill probably isn’t as high. The 2012 first-round pick did enough to get a four-year, $77 million extension from the Dolphins in 2015. But in five years as a starter, Tannehill never established himself as more than a middle-of-the-pack quarterback.

Now Tannehill is about to turn 30 and will be returning from a knee injury that cost him the end of the 2016 season and all of 2017. To secure his place as the Dolphins’ quarterback of the foreseeable future, Tannehill has the tall task of returning better than ever after his knee surgery.

What are his chances at accomplishing that feat? And what can we expect from Wentz and Watson in their returns? The recent history of ACL tears for quarterbacks — listed chronologically, beginning in 2006 — suggests it’s not as daunting as it seems:

Carson Palmer

  • Injury: Jan. 8, 2006; ACL and MCL, meniscus damage
  • Surgery: Jan. 10, 2006
  • Return: Aug. 28, 2006
  • Injury season (2005): 67.8 percent completion rate; 32 TDs; 12 INTs; 239.8 yards/game; 101.1
  • Season post-injury (2006): 62.3 percent completion rate; 28 TDs; 13 INTs; 252.2 yards/game; 93.9 QB rating

Palmer’s first major knee injury happened during the Bengals’ first playoff game in 15 years. In the years since, it has become a huge “what if?” for Cincinnati fans — not because it was the beginning of a demise for Palmer, but because it ruined a chance at postseason glory.

The recovery for Palmer was impressive, considering the injury was serious enough that his surgeon called it “potentially career-ending.”

Palmer’s rehab was a huge story in the 2006 offseason after he had established himself in 2005 as one of the NFL’s most promising young passers. He returned for the Bengals’ third preseason game, less than eight months after suffering his injury.

In his return year, many of Palmer’s numbers dropped, but he was still a Pro Bowler and topped 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his career.

Knee surgery’s impact: It didn’t seem to slow Palmer’s growth and ascension much.

Donovan McNabb

  • Injury: Nov. 19, 2006; ACL
  • Surgery: Nov. 28, 2006
  • Return: Aug. 17, 2007
  • Injury season (10 games — 2006): 57.0 percent completion rate; 18 TDs; 6 INTs; 264.7 yards/game; 95.5 QB rating
  • Season post-injury (14 games — 2007): 61.5 percent completion rate; 19 TDs; 7 INTs; 237.4 yards/game; 89.9 QB rating

When McNabb went down in the 2006 season, it didn’t tank the Eagles’ season. Jeff Garcia took the reins of a 5-5 team and guided the Eagles to a 5-1 record in the last six games of the regular season. Then he led them to a win in the Wild Card Round.

“Jeff Garcia, baby, he’s our baby! He’s it, baby,” one enthusiastic Eagles fan memorably said after the team’s playoff win.

Garcia left in free agency so McNabb returned to his starting job without much drama in 2007. When he did, he looked no worse for the wear, and finished the year with numbers right around his career average.

Knee surgery’s impact: McNabb was a little less prolific after returning from the injury, but it didn’t seem that the knee was the issue.

Philip Rivers

  • Injury: Jan. 13, 2008; ACL
  • Surgery: Jan. 23, 2008
  • Return: Aug. 9, 2008
  • Injury season (2007): 60.2 percent completion rate; 21 TDs; 15 INTs; 197.0 yards/game; 82.4 QB rating
  • Season post-injury (2008): 65.3 percent completion rate; 34 TDs; 11 INTs; 250.6 yards/game; 105.5 QB rating

The recovery from Rivers is so incredible that it forces you to question how bad his knee really was. The legend is that the Chargers quarterback played the 2007 AFC Championship with a torn ACL that he suffered in a win against the Colts a week earlier.

Rivers underwent a minor surgery a week before the game, and then had a second surgery later that month to repair the ACL following the loss. About three months later, he was back at practice.

It spits in the face of everything we know about recovering from a major knee injury — especially considering Rivers had his breakout season in 2008, taking the lead for a team that previously leaned heavily on running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He finished the season with an NFL-best 105.5 passer rating.

Knee surgery’s impact: None. Not only did Rivers not slow down, he hit a new level.

Tom Brady

  • Injury: Sept. 7, 2008; ACL, MCL
  • Surgery: Oct. 6, 2008; subsequent procedures for infection
  • Return: Aug. 13, 2009
  • Injury season (one game — 2008): 63.6 percent completion rate; 0 TDs; 0 INTs; 76.0 yards/game; 83.9 QB rating
  • Season post-injury (2009): 65.7 percent completion rate; 28 TDs; 13 INTs; 274.9 yards/game; 96.2 QB rating

Brady is the outlier when comparing stats from the year of the injury to the next season, because he went down early in Week 1 of the 2008 season. A better comparison could be his stats from the 2007 season, but that was one of the greatest seasons any quarterback has ever had. It’s a bit of an unfair standard to hold someone to — even Brady.

When Brady returned in 2009, he was still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The 13 interceptions he threw that year were the most he’s thrown in any season since 2005, but he still had a 96.2 passer rating and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl.

In hindsight, it doesn’t seem surprising that Brady excelled when he had so much time to recover from an injury suffered at the very beginning of an NFL season. But at the time, there were serious concerns about a staph infection that forced Brady to undergo multiple operations on his knee. Some believed there could be permanent damage, but his 2009 season — not to mention his next decade — proved he was fine.

Knee surgery’s impact: Brady started a little slow in 2009, but the knee injury didn’t stop him from continuing to be Tom Brady.

Robert Griffin III

  • Injury: Jan. 6, 2013; ACL, LCL
  • Surgery: Jan. 9, 2013
  • Return: Sept. 9, 2013
  • Injury season (15 games — 2012): 65.6 percent completion rate; 20 TDs; 5 INTs; 213.3 yards/game; 102.4 QB rating
  • Season post-injury (13 games — 2013): 60.1 percent completion rate; 16 TDs; 12 INTs; 246.4 yards/game; 82.2 QB rating

Here’s the one that will forever sound alarms when a young quarterback gets injured. Griffin had the world on a string in 2012. He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year — topping Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson for the award — with 20 passing touchdowns, five interceptions, and seven rushing touchdowns.

Then it all came crashing down in a painful-to-watch playoff loss to the Seahawks in January 2012.

The injury was first suffered a month earlier in a game against the Ravens, but Washington brass did a horrible job managing its young star and it eventually made things much worse.

When Griffin returned in 2013, he sat out all of preseason and was a shell of his former self. He was later shut down for the last three games of the year after Washington was eliminated from playoff contention. He has since dealt with serious injuries on a seemingly annual basis and was a free agent for the entire 2017 season.

Knee surgery’s impact: The demise of RGIII wasn’t just because of one knee injury. He has a propensity to run into danger face first, and it’s also worth considering the possibility that his unique skill set was a flash in the pan that was sniffed out. But it clearly had an impact to some degree, and it will go down in the NFL annals as the danger of not being careful with a knee injury.

Sam Bradford

  • Injury No. 1: Oct. 20, 2013; ACL
  • Surgery: Nov. 18, 2013
  • Return: Aug. 16, 2014
  • Injury No. 2: Aug. 23, 2014; ACL
  • Surgery: Sept. 8, 2014
  • Return: Aug. 22, 2015
  • Injury season (seven games — 2013): 60.7 percent completion rate; 14 TDs; 4 INTs; 241.0 yards/game; 90.9 QB rating
  • Season post-injuries (14 games — 2015): 65.0 percent completion rate; 19 TDs; 14 INTs; 266.1 yards/game; 86.4 QB rating

It’s almost difficult to remember a time when Bradford wasn’t dealing with injuries. He missed most of his last season at Oklahoma due to a shoulder problem, but started 42 of a possible 48 games in his first three seasons with the Rams — only missing six in 2011 due to ankle sprains.

The No. 1 pick of the 2010 NFL Draft finished his time with the Rams by tearing his ACL in 2013, and then tearing it again during preseason in 2014. When he finally returned to the field in 2015, he was the starting quarterback for the Eagles.

Bradford’s hallmark as a passer has been his accuracy and efficiency, and he didn’t lose that in his return. The problem with his knee wasn’t that it slowed him in 2015, but the accumulation of damage has seemed to slow him years later.

Knee problems bubbled back to the surface for Bradford during his time with the Vikings in 2017. He missed 14 games, and Minnesota was forced to turn to Case Keenum.

“Sam Bradford’s knee is much worse than people know,’’ Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer said in October, via TwinCities.com. “There’s so much wear and tear in there, and cartilage issues, and constant swelling and pain in there. He doesn’t look at it right now as career-ending, but bottom line is if this continues to swell and continues to be painful, Bradford’s going to have to look at his knee and make a decision on his career.”

Knee surgery’s impact: While Bradford was OK after two years away, the real impact was the long-term toll of multiple knee surgeries. Now a member of the Cardinals and entering his ninth NFL season, knee problems haven’t cost Bradford his career. But they certainly sapped his potential.

Carson Palmer

  • Injury: Nov. 9, 2014; ACL
  • Surgery: Nov. 18, 2014
  • Return: Aug. 15, 2015
  • Injury season (six games — 2014): 62.9 percent completion rate; 11 TDs; 3 INTs; 271.0 yards/game; 95.6 QB rating
  • Season post-injuries (2015): 63.7 percent completion rate; 35 TDs; 11 INTs; 291.9 yards/game; 104.6 QB rating

Palmer has made the Pro Bowl three times in his career. Remarkably, two of those times were immediately after a season that ended with an ACL tear. The latter was in 2015, when he returned from a season-ending injury to lead the Cardinals to a 13-3 record and a trip to the NFC Championship.

He missed most of the 2017 season due to a broken arm, and announced his retirement at the beginning of 2018. But Palmer continued to be a top-level NFL quarterback into his late 30s and didn’t seem to be slowed by either of his major knee injuries.

Knee surgery’s impact: Like the first injury, it didn’t stop him from succeeding in his return.

Joe Flacco

  • Injury: Nov. 22, 2015; ACL, MCL
  • Surgery: Dec. 8, 2015
  • Return: Aug. 27, 2016
  • Injury season (10 games — 2015): 64.4 percent completion rate; 14 TDs; 12 INTs; 279.1 yards/game; 83.1 QB rating
  • Season post-injuries (2016): 64.9 percent completion rate; 20 TDs; 15 INTs; 269.8 yards/game; 83.5 QB rating

Flacco was near the bottom of the NFL in most passing categories prior to his knee injury in 2015. After his return, his numbers were almost exactly the same across the board.

It’s been a while since Flacco tossed his name into the “elite” debate when he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl during the 2012 season. His play in recent years has left much to be desired, and is the reason Lamar Jackson shouldn’t take long to take the wheel.

But there’s no reason to believe that the knee injury Flacco suffered in 2015 is the reason his play has plateaued.

Knee surgery’s impact: Flacco was the same quarterback before and after his injury — for better and for worse.


Most quarterbacks over the last decade or two haven’t had much trouble bouncing back after an ACL tear. Griffin, and maybe the long-term effects suffered by Bradford, are the only significant counterexamples.

For Tannehill, Watson, and Wentz, the danger is an accumulation of surgeries if they continue to get injured the way Bradford has. Perhaps the biggest red flag is that Griffin was the most dangerous runner on this list. Tannehill, Watson, and Wentz are all athletic quarterbacks who have the ability to run or escape when the pocket breaks down.

Still, the Dolphins, Texans, and Eagles should be optimistic about their passers’ respective returns. The recovery of other quarterbacks suggests we should expect all three quarterbacks to be the same players they were prior to the surgeries.