The outlook isn't good. It wasn't good to begin with.
When Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson went down during Week 1 with a torn Achilles tendon, it was immediately clear that he would be lost for the season. After a decade in the National Football League and with 138 career games on the resume, it was also questioned whether or not this would be the end. That much is still uncertain.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said all the right things after the season when asked whether Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito, who suffered the same injury on the same day, would be ready for offseason programs.
"I think most likely they will be," said Reid. "They've been working out together here rehabbing and they've been challenging each other like crazy which is a neat thing to see go on."
Reid is saying the right things, because Johnson and DeVito are doing the right things. They're likely receiving the very best medical attention, using the best equipment, and utilizing the best methods known to rehab the injuries. But there's also some things that you can't undo, and that's the loss of dynamism after suffering such an injury, especially when a player has already put his body the rigors of several seasons of professional football.
Johnson has served as the heart and soul of this defense over the past four seasons. Ever since Todd Haley got in his head by benching him, Johnson has become a force from sideline to sideline, a middle linebacker who can drop back as well as get after the passer. As a reward, Johnson had earned three straight Pro Bowl trips and ranks among the team's greatest linebackers of all time.
Without Johnson in the middle, the Chiefs were a mess late in the season. Josh Mauga and James Michael-Johnson did their best to step up when the team lost DJ and Joe Mays to injury, but the defense were a clear step off without their longtime leader. The Chiefs will be glad to see Johnson back in 2015, but the question is whether he can regain his pre-injury form. The answer is unknown, of course, but the outlook is not good.
NFL history isn't exactly riddled with defenders who successfully overcame Achilles injuries. According to a medical survey from Lower Extremity Review (yep) conducted back in 2010, 64 percent of NFL players who suffered an Achilles injury successfully returned to the field. The average time to return was 11 months. That's the good news. Unfortunately, both the number of games (11.7 games/year before injury vs. 6.2 games post-injury) and the quality of play suffered greatly:
Furthermore, in the reviewed 21 NFL skill players who returned to play, there were significant decreases in games played per season (11.67 games per year pre-injury versus 6.17 games per year postinjury) when averaged over the three seasons before the injury and the three seasons after the injury. There were also decreases averaging nearly 50% in power ratings of the returning players for the three seasons after the injury compared to the three seasons before the injury.
The study uses the term "skill position" to include linebackers, so don't be swayed by the title.
This much should be expected, since similar results would happen with any major injury, whether that's a torn muscle or a bone break. Johnson is one of the stronger performers to suffer such an injury, so that should affect his ability to come back. So what about some others from his position who could serve as an example?
This is the hopeful comparison. Suggs was a beast from his first days on the field for the Baltimore Ravens as a dynamic pass rusher who will one day garner Hall of Fame consideration. He tore his Achilles during offseason conditioning drills after the 2011 season, and came back to play in eight games in 2012. He wasn't the same that year, but he has 22 sacks in the two seasons since, including a Pro Bowl berth in 2013. Even his team doctor said the quick return was unbelievable.
It's hard to remember Beason as the guy who started every single game for four straight season to open his NFL career with the Carolina Panthers. Since tearing his Achilles early in the 2011 season, he's bounced from Carolina to the New York Giants and has suffered even more more season-ending injuries in 2012 (knee) and 2014 (foot/toe). He made three straight Pro Bowls from 2008 to 2010.
Former Eagles and Browns linebacker Chris Gocong played in every single football game but one for five seasons, but never played again after tearing his Achilles in 2012. Lavar Arrington suffered the same fate in 2006 and walked away from Washington. Former Chiefs LB Brandon Siler returned from an Achilles injury in 2012 to play all 16 games, but made minimal impact on the field.
There's obviously no way of knowing how things will turn out for the Chiefs players facing the uphill climb ahead (including WR/KR Joe McKnight), but some of these scenarios should show us how rare it is for DJ and DeVito to come back as the players they were. Even at other positions, the return is difficult. While players like WR Demaryius Thomas and CB Leon Hall have successfully come back, they are the rare performers among so many forced to leave the game.
The Chiefs also aren't the only team hoping for a Suggs-like return on the field from a star linebacker. The Eagles (DeMeco Ryans), Falcons (Sean Weatherspoon), and Colts (Robert Mathis) all face the same concerns on defense as they prepare for potential offseason acquisitions and contractual ramifications.
For the Chiefs, the need at linebacker remains overshadowed by greater troubled spots at wideout and offensive line, but do not be fooled into thinking that serious help isn't needed at the position. The Chiefs must make contingency plans in case Johnson comes back a different player, if he's able to return at all. The Achilles mystery is just too great to hope for the best.