Good news, Niners fans: reports out of Santa Clara indicate that NaVorro Bowman is progressing well as he rehabs from surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee.
Progressing well, as in he reportedly ran a 40-Yard Dash in the 4.5-second range.
Bowman, if you recall, suffered a gruesome knee injury in the NFC Championship game back in January. He opened the 2014 season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and appears to be on target for a late November return, according to CSNBayArea.com.
One may wonder: why is Bowman running a 40-Yard Dash, the headlining event of the NFL's annual scouting combine, in the first place? And what does it mean for his general prognosis?
On the surface, his blazing 40 time would indicate that the 6-foot, 240-pound linebacker hasn't lost any speed during his recovery, especially considering he clocked an official time of 4.7 seconds when he tested at the Combine in 2010.
In a larger sense, running the 40-Yard Dash serves as a baseline for testing the strength of Bowman's surgically repaired left knee.
For a 2012 article on ACL injuries, athletic trainer Anna Hartman told USA Today that high-performance athletes are typically cleared to begin running straight-ahead around the 12-week mark of their rehab programs.
Running in a straight line, however, is only among the first of many evaluations in the protocol required to clear Bowman for football.
"I won't allow somebody to cut until they've shown me they have good strength and hip stability and are tolerating things well," says Hartman, who previously served as director of performance physical therapy at EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance) in Phoenix.
Before he begins practicing, Bowman will likely perform a battery of drills to test his ability to cut, backpedal and change direction at full speed.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged that Bowman has been running and doing some lateral cutting, but there is still no set timetable for his return. It is unlikely that a 49ers team focused on the stretch run into the postseason will rush their star defensive player back onto the field until he is 100 percent ready to go.
Bowman's faster 40 time presents the question of whether his surgically-repaired left knee is actually stronger than it was prior to the injury.
In addressing rehabilitation after an ACL procedure, Dr. Freddie Fu told USA Today that surgeons are working to make the replacement as close to the original as possible.
"We feel that we are re-creating a knee that is very similar to the pre-injury knee," said Fu, who serves as chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Modern-day innovations in ACL rehab are enabling some of the game's best players to return with a neuromuscular and proprioceptive edge that athletes in the past did not have. Kansas City Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles rushed for a career-high 1,509 yards in 2012, after suffering a season-ending ACL injury the previous year. This season, Jeremy Maclin of the Philadelphia Eagles is on pace to post career-high numbers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions after suffering an ACL injury in training camp that sidelined him for the entire 2013 regular season. And less than a year removed from a torn ACL in his right knee, New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski appears to have returned to his beastly ways following a monster performance—nine catches for 149 yards and three touchdowns—in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears.
An ACL injury was akin to a career death sentence not long ago. Now, the combination of surgical and rehabilitative advances have enabled recovering athletes to return to their previous—if not higher—level of performance in record time.
For Bowman, a former third-round draft pick who evolved from situational player to a three-time All-Pro linebacker, the fast 40 time is a promising sign that he'll soon pick up where he left off—as the one of the league's premier inside linebackers.
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