|Thursday, May 30
Updated: May 31, 1:17 PM ET
Rehabbing players have teams feeling better
By Len Pasquarelli
Having lost 13 starters from their 2001 lineup, and 14 veterans who started for them in their Super Bowl XXXV victory just 16 months ago, the Baltimore Ravens obviously face a monumental rebuilding task in 2002 and beyond.
One element that will help accelerate what figures to nonetheless be a lengthy recovery, however, is the likely return to health of tailback Jamal Lewis, who missed the 2001 season while recovering from a severe knee injury. On pace to be fully rehabilitated for training camp, Lewis is clearly a key if the Ravens are to return to prominence.
A first-round choice in the 2000 draft, and the NFL's most outstanding rookie performer that year, Lewis ran for 1,364 yards in his debut season. At the same time, the Ravens ranked No. 5 in the league rushing statistics and pounded the New York Giants in the title game. Without him in the lineup last year, Baltimore didn't have a player rush for more than 658 yards, was forced to adopt a tailback-by-committee approach that produced mediocre results, and was eliminated from the postseason tournament in an ignominious division-round defeat at Pittsburgh.
"It would make a big difference, getting Lewis back to the level he was in 2000, no doubt about that," said Ravens vice president Ozzie Newsome. "It's always good to get a player back from an injury, especially a player of his caliber, because you feel like you regain an element you had lost. It's like finding something really good under the Christmas tree."
Extending that analogy, there should be plenty of excited coaches and personnel directors around the NFL this summer, as gifted players lost to 2001 injuries return to the field. On a whole, most teams seek every conceivable way to upgrade their rosters in the offseason, and this spring that has included diligently monitoring the progress of recovering players. This has been a spring, in fact, in which the trainers' reports have been just as important as the scouting reports.
Rehabilitation times, coaches acknowledged, have been as rigorously scrutinized as some 40-yard times in many cases. Getting an injured player on pace for return can translate into getting a team back on track to respectability.
At the tailback spot alone four Pro Bowl caliber players -- Lewis, Jamal Anderson (Atlanta), Edgerrin James (Indianapolis) and Fred Taylor (Jacksonville) -- return again after missing a combined 53 contests in 2001.
Anderson, who will be released next week as a post-June 1 salary cap casualty, will make his comeback with a team other than the Falcons, who no longer have a place for him in their backfield. The others should certainly serve as catalysts for the potential rebounds of their respective teams in 2002.
Assuming he can tear himself away from South Florida in time for training camp, James is expected to catapult the Colts back into the playoffs and maybe Super Bowl contention in their new division. The oft-injured Taylor, who has missed the equivalent of a season and a half with various ailments during his first four years in the league, remains among the NFL's most versatile players at his position and the cap-strapped Jaguars need him to be merely competitive again.
"He will," understated Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, "make us a lot better."
In fact, there is an unusually large contingent of significant players who missed eight or more games in 2001 because of injury, but whose return this summer should enhance the fortunes of their clubs. By unofficial count, 67 players missed eight or more games with a variety of maladies in 2001, and one could assemble a pretty representative "all injury" from that litany of the wounded.
While conventional wisdom holds that one player can't make too marked a difference in a team, coaches agree that the return of a veteran who has missed significant playing time in the previous season offers a boost on the field, and sometimes off it as well. There is a feeling of having "gotten whole again," as one head coach described it, and of recovering a lost soul. Coaches tend to be pragmatic when major injuries occur and ecstatic when the afflicted players return.
"It doesn't necessarily follow that, if a big player gets well from injury, then your team gets well again, too," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher. "But there are a lot of key players who went down in 2001."
And this spring will mark some key comebacks.
Over the past 10 days, ESPN.com surveyed 19 coaches, general managers and owners about which players coming off 2001 injuries -- and returning to the teams for whom they were with last season -- would make the biggest difference for the coming year. And the group overwhelmingly cited James as the most notable recovering player.
But there were other players noted as well, not all of them running backs of course, and not all of them readily apparent.
How much better, for instance, will the Oakland pass rush be if Trace Armstrong is able to bounce back from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for all but three games in '01? The San Diego defensive front, which still managed to rank No. 7 against the rush minus tackle Jamal Williams, will be even better with him back in the lineup. Without wideout Ed McCaffrey, the Denver passing attack dropped from No. 3 in 2000 to 25th, and ought to regain its prominence if he is healthy this year.
The Cleveland Browns could legitimately challenge for a playoff spot in only their fourth season of existence if defensive end and former overall No. 1 pick Courtney Brown stays healthier than he has his first two years in the league. A healthy Marcus Robinson would be the perfect complement to emerging Chicago Bears standout receiver Marty Booker. The Seattle secondary will be exponentially better if cornerback Shawn Springs is over his nagging hamstring woes.
In Houston, the expansion Texans need the leadership of tackle Tony Boselli on and off the field, and that means his surgically-repaired shoulders must be better. A knee injury to Brent Smith on the first day of full-scale training camp drills last summer sent the Miami Dolphins scurrying for a left tackle. Smith's return would be a huge plus.
Even some lesser-known players, like Cincinnati cornerback Rodney Heath, will provide a much-needed boost if he can recover from a severe hamstring injury that limited him to only five games in 2001. Guard Jerry Ostroski would bolster a young and reshuffled line in Buffalo if he is fully rehabilitated from an '01 broken leg. The Dallas Cowboys would like to be able to count on steady kicker Tim Seder again after he missed eight games. And the Dallas quarterback of the future, Quincy Carter, also played in but eight games in his 2001 rookie season.
"As much as you count on the draft and free agency (to replenish) your team, the reality is that most improvement from one year to the next comes from within," allowed New York Jets coach Herm Edwards at this year's league meetings in Orlando. "For the most part, that means having your younger players progress in your system, but it also includes getting some guys back from the injured list, too."
A year ago, the Jets got just five appearances from first-round draft choice Santana Moss, but the electrifying wide receiver and punt returner should add big plays in 2002, when he is expected to move into the starting lineup.
And consider how much of a jump Cleveland might make if players such as Brown, guard Tre Johnson, tight end Rickey Dudley, corner Lewis Sanders and safety Michael Jameson are back healthy in 2002. Those players missed an aggregate 71 games because of injuries a year ago.
"Unfortunately, rehabilitation has been a big business for us this offseason," said coach Butch Davis. "But we're hopeful it's one that makes us better because of getting some of our players better physically."
That is, it seems, a sentiment that resonates across the league right now.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.