Recovery of Bengals’ Joe Burrow: What to expect, how it compares to others

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow joined a club in which no one wants to be a member.

When he went down with a season-ending left knee injury on Nov. 22, the top overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft became the latest quarterback to tear multiple ligaments in one knee. Burrow tore his left ACL and MCL and also suffered partial tears to his PCL and meniscus, sources told ESPN.

The Bengals announced Burrow underwent successful surgery on Dec. 2 and is expected to make a full recovery. But exactly how long that recovery takes is the tricky part.

“As people are wrapping their head around what he’s going through, there are things that were fixed surgically,” ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said. “There also may be things that weren’t fixed surgically. And all of those tissues have to heal.”

Burrow’s surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, told “The Adam Schefter Podcast” that the rookie is among players such as New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa who are on track to return for the start of the 2021 season.

“These guys are doing exceedingly well right now,” ElAttrache said. “It’s early on. I expect that the guys that we’ve taken care of with the knee injuries, at this point in the year, would still be on track for the beginning of the season next year.”

However, it all depends on Burrow’s rehab process over the next several months. Bell said that because of the nature of Burrow’s injury, the process will have to start slowly to allow all of the injured tissues in the knee to heal before he can accelerate the return to the field.

“The bottom line is that the early part in the first few months has to go slower,” Bell said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t make that up in the subsequent months. And that’s why timelines are really hard to set.”

The physical aspect is an obvious part of the rehab process, but Bell said the mental component shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I do think these big blowout, contact injuries do make guys nervous in the pocket and understandably so,” Bell said. “It’s something that they then have to get past.”

But what will Burrow look like when he returns? Here are a few other quarterbacks who have dealt with similar injuries.

Carson Palmer, Bengals

The injury: Palmer, like Burrow a No. 1 overall pick who also wore No. 9, suffered a direct hit to his knee and tore the ACL and MCL and also suffered meniscus damage in a 2006 AFC wild-card game against the Steelers. Bell said Palmer’s injury is the most similar to Burrow’s. At the time, Palmer’s surgeon told the Associated Press the injury was “devastating and potentially career-ending.”

The recovery: Palmer had reconstructive surgery in January 2006 and was able to return for the start of the 2006 preseason.

How he fared: Palmer suffered no serious setback to his career after the injury. In fact, he threw for a then-franchise record 4,035 yards in 2006 (and topped that with 4,131 in 2007) and earned his second Pro Bowl selection. He played 12 more years after the injury, including eight in which he started at least 15 games.

The injury: Wentz came up with a limp after diving for a touchdown that was called back against the Rams on Dec. 10, 2017. Initial reports said Wentz had torn his ACL. However, Wentz later revealed he also tore his LCL.

The recovery: Wentz intended to return for the start of the 2018 season. While he was reportedly ahead of schedule with his rehab process, Wentz missed Philadelphia’s first two games as the team remained cautious with its franchise quarterback.

How he fared: Wentz passed for 3,074 yards with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 11 games in 2018. He suffered a back injury in December and missed the final three games of the regular season and two playoff games. In 2020, Wentz lost his starting job to rookie Jalen Hurts after starting the first 12 games. It’s unclear how the totality of Wentz’s injury history has affected his performance, but at 27 he is now facing the possibility of no longer being the same player who earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2017 before the knee injury.

The injury: During the final preseason practice of the 2016 season, Bridgewater, then the 23-year-old Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback, tore his ACL and dislocated his kneecap in a non-contact injury. Bridgewater went down after he planted his foot during a passing drill. His surgeon, Dan Cooper, told ESPN in 2018 that it was a “horribly grotesque injury” and the entire knee was mangled. “It’s almost like a war wound,” Cooper said. “Everything is blown.”

The recovery: Bridgewater missed all of 2016 and required almost 15 months of rehab before being cleared to return in October 2017. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer later told reporters that the outlook from the medical staff wasn’t “as positive” as the one Zimmer held. Cooper said the surgery was “an absolute gut test” and said Bridgewater’s return to the field was a testament to the quarterback’s character. “Most people have no idea the volume of the workload this kid had to put in,” Cooper said. “He had a toothpick of a leg he had to rebuild.”

How he fared: Bridgewater played one game with the Vikings in 2017 before spending two seasons as a backup with the Saints from 2018 to ’19. He finally found a starting job last offseason when he signed a three-year contract with the Carolina Panthers worth $63 million. The 28-year-old is on pace to outperform his 2015 Pro Bowl season. Bridgewater is completing a career-high 70.7% of his passes and has already thrown for 3,102 yards.

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