Injuries are a part of any sport and can be big obstacles in an athlete’s development and production throughout their career. One of the most severe injuries in any sport is an ACL tear. It requires a strenuous amount of rehabilitation and mental toughness to deal with. That said, there have been several high-profile quarterbacks who tore an ACL and continued their careers post injury. The next QB to attempt such a comeback is 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow, who suffered an ACL tear midway through his rookie season.
This data set takes a look at certain seasons from notable starting quarterbacks who had torn their ACL. It provides statistics from either the season they tore their ACL or the previous season if they had torn it before playing that year. By comparing these statistics to the quarterback’s performance after their ACL injury, inferences can be drawn as to how much of an impact ACL tears have on starting quarterbacks the following year.
The most notable change when comparing the charts is the amount of sacks taken in the season following the ACL tear. The sack total for every player except Tom Brady went up and nearly three of them doubled. Deshaun Watson went from being sacked 19 times in 2017 to then being brought down 62 times following his injury. Not all of this is caused by the limitations an ACL injury can bring, but this large increase across multiple quarterbacks’ seasons shows there is a correlation in the two.
Interceptions thrown went up for every quarterback following their ACL injury as well. Every quarterback on this list increased their interceptions, with the largest increase being Robert Griffin III with seven more picks thrown in two fewer games. Griffin’s situation was different than most because he came off a great rookie season and his style of play revolved around using his legs to make plays. An ACL injury can limit a player’s willingness to step up in the pocket or make explosive cuts to extend the play. This results in more off-balance throws, which can raise interception totals. This type of injury can alter how a quarterback plays and end up changing the dynamic tools that made them special.
There is not a conclusive trend when looking at the completion percentage of quarterbacks after ACL tears. The quarterbacks were split down the middle with half of them increasing and the other half having a lower completion percentage after their injury. Overall, the largest increase in percentage points was the improved quarterbacks becoming more accurate after their injury. This is more likely due to the development of their play but after the injury they are likely looking to refine their pocket work and technique in order to limit re-injury risk. Often coming off an injury, QBs feel less comfortable in the pocket and could be trying to get rid of the ball quicker than usual. This type of focus helps develop good fundamentals, which leads to becoming a more accurate passer.
Burrow started his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals putting up impressive numbers before tearing his ACL in Week 11. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether he will return from injury with the same type of performance he displayed last year, or if his injury will delay him in taking the next steps in his development.
On a call with the 33rd Team back in June, former NFL offensive coordinator and analyst Chris Palmer discussed how he thinks Burrow will bounce back from his ACL injury.
“This is a situation where Burrow is going to be rusty,” said Palmer. “He is going to be a little skittish at the beginning, but I think if he gets confidence in the offensive line, he will grow in leaps and bounds as we go along.”
Palmer talked about the confidence issue that can arise with a significant injury to a quarterback. The trust in an offensive line is very important to a young quarterback like Burrow. The Bengals have taken steps to retool their line this offseason, so it will be interesting to see how they perform with the responsibility of protecting their franchise quarterback again.
According to the trends of past quarterbacks, Burrow is likely to continue his pattern of good performances, while running into some tougher times in his sophomore year. Coming back from an ACL tear has longer consequences on a player’s mental game than their actual physical ability in some cases. Burrow will need to be protected at a better rate in order to feel more comfortable in the pocket and put the injury behind him. The history of quarterbacks being sacked more after their ACL injury will be a trend to look at in Burrow’s return. The rate at which Burrow will rebound and improve from this ACL injury will be indicative to how quickly he can get his confidence back.