Joe Burrow's return to the field by Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season was celebrated. It was impressive for the Bengals quarterback to be back in time to begin the season after he tore his ACL and MCL during his rookie season, in addition to having damage to his PCL.
But the reality can be addressed now -- Burrow wasn't himself. He wasn't the player you'll see on the field Sunday for Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams. He was playing, but he wasn't ballin'.
And according to the doctor who repaired Burrow's knee and set the wheels in motion for a dramatic return that would lead him to be the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, the differences are noticeable.
"The thing you saw towards November and December was what everybody had seen at LSU -- that he could run," said Dr. Neal ElAttrache of Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, who performed the operation on Burrow. "The kid could run and evade people and he was elusive. If you watch him on film and see where he was that first game, you notice he got better and better as the season went on. And his throwing was there, he was throwing the ball well, but he started to do more with difficult pass routes as the season went on. That indicates he's very confident."
Burrow sees it, too.
"It's night and day from the first half of the season," Burrow told reporters this week. "I'm starting to finally feel like myself and able to pull out of some of those tackles when defensive players have me wrapped up in the pocket, and I'm starting to be able to get out of those situations and make some plays."
Watching Burrow week after week, it appears that he actually is getting better the later it gets in the season. The stats show that, as well.
From Week 10 on, Burrow has improved his completion percentage (71.7% compared to 68.2%), passing yardage (295.6 to 277.4), TD to INT ratio (18-5 to 20-11) and passer rating (109.2 to 102.6). He's also thrown for five 300 yard games since Week 13 after hitting that mark just twice before then.
And with ElAttrache noting the added athleticism late, Burrow's play has shown that, as well. Burrow averaged 2.1 yards per carry through Week 9 and 3.6 yards since.
"He's very dangerous when he has the ball in his hands and he's taken the game to the opponent now," said ElAttrache, who is also the Rams' team doctor. "He's not letting it come to him. He's aggressive. At the beginning, he was just getting a feel. But then there has been a whole new aggressiveness the last couple months."
On Nov. 22, 2020, Burrow sustained his knee injury. ElAttrache has watched the video just once, which was enough. He knew there was no margin for error when it came to recovery time, and when he went over the calendar with Burrow, he made very clear that there is only so much that can be controlled. It was possible there just wouldn't be enough time.
"The first thing I said to him was, 'This is the calendar, here is where we are, here is where minicamp is, here is when you go back. I'm telling you this because this is all sort of a fantasy -- very artificial,' " ElAttrache recounted. "This doesn't really mean anything with regard to your knee. We fixed it like it needed to be fixed and we're going to rehab it like we need to rehab it, so that you're able to get as much or full use out of your knee as you can. I said, 'We're not going to slow you down, but we're not going to allow you to be at a higher risk. So we'll be where we're going to be. But our target is the beginning of the season and we'll take it from there.' I knew somewhere around June that this was completely doable."
During his rehab, the medical staff had data to measure Burrow's progress and show how much of a risk he had of reinjury. Assuming all is well, the player must also play a role, according to ElAttrache.
"Confidence comes into play," he said. "Because someone's willingness to jam on that leg and really stick their foot in the turf -- it takes a mindset."
It all led them to today. Burrow has no worries about the knee and is finally at 100%. He is playing like it. It all made ElAttrache look back in appreciation for not only how hard Burrow worked but also how he treated everyone else during the process.
"He was really a great patient to take care of because he was really, I could tell he had an early touch of destiny," ElAttrache said. "He was on a mission to really establish himself and learn. He wasn't assuming anything. I love that. I could tell where his mindset was. And everybody involved has so much to offer from physical therapists to trainers to those in Cincinnati. That is a great part of what we do. It makes you appreciate the importance of being a part of high performing, high functioning team. He made sure that everybody felt like they had something to bring to the table. To treat the people that were going to be treating him and empower them and acknowledge the role that they would play. He made everyone feel like they were important in the process, which was really amazing to see."