Before his departure from the team, now former New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LeFleur spoke to the media about the team’s running back situation and said:
“He’s a big part of our plans, he really is... Joe D (Douglas) and them brought him in for a reason. I’ve been in situations before where you have a guy coming off an injury that he came off of and when you’re coming off an injury that he came off of in ’21, it takes a lot of time, a lot of rehab, a full offseason of not just rehabbing, but getting back into football shape and being able to work the right way to be able to play at your highest level, so again, he’s a big part of our plans, he’s a heck of a runner, I thought in ’21 before he got injured, those first six, seven, eight weeks, I thought he was one of the best backs in the League, and I’m so thankful that he’s on this roster and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do moving forward.”
Within the back part of this quote, LeFleur seemed to imply James Robinson was meaningfully better prior to when he suffered a torn achilles in December 2021. However, this lessened performance was rather predictable given that a torn achilles is a notoriously difficult injury to recover from for NFL athletes, especially among running backs. As summarized within a peer-reviewed publication by Robert Jack and colleagues (2017) in the journal ‘Foot & Ankle International: “Postoperative performance scores were significantly worse (P < .05) for running backs (RBs) (n = 4) and linebackers (LBs) (n = 12) compared to preoperative scores.” This would inform that we should re-evaluate and temper our expectations for a player even as great as James Robinson was in light of an injury such as this (which the Jets seemingly failed to do given that Robinson was acquired and then benched shortly thereafter).
This need to consider injury history in expectations also has relevance for Jets running back and fan favorite Breece Hall, who suffered a torn ACL in week 7. More specifically, as analyzed by Matthew Betz of thefantasyfootballers.com, running backs see drop-offs in fantasy points (a proxy for overall output) but also in efficiency stats such as yards per carry, yards after contact per attempt, yards per touch, and elusive rating in their first year returning from a torn ACL compared to their pre-injury levels.
While there are some exceptions to this rule, these findings generally put forth that running backs do experience diminished play in the first year following this injury. However, for those seeking a rosier outlook, this same study also provides rationale for why this may not be as big a deal for Breece’s long-term projections. Specifically, Betz found support that:
Excluding players who retired after their ACL injury, the vast majority of players were more efficient in yards per attempt, yards per touch, and fantasy points per game in the second year following ACL surgery [compared to the first year following ACL surgery].
Moreover, Betz further provided a caveat to that statement with additional information that supports why Breece may return to full strength in due time given his young age of only 21 years old:
Age does seem to matter. Younger backs in this sample (younger than 26) were more likely than veteran backs to have a bounce-back season in year two after ACL surgery, at least when you look at efficiency metrics and fantasy points per game. Unfortunately, late career ACL injuries have the potential to be career-threatening (Darren Sproles, Lamar Miller, etc.)
A visualization of the comparison of first year of recovery to second year of recovery data can be seen here:
Taken together, the accumulation of data above suggests that injuries can have long-term effects even after a player is medically cleared. For James Robinson, data suggests that his performance may never fully recover. For Breece Hall, data suggests we may see a lesser level of performance from him next season but that this dropoff may be short-lived.
It is important to keep these timelines in mind as we make projections for a variety of injured Jets, including Breece Hall, guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, tackle Mekhi Becton, and several others.
But what do you think? Does this information sway your expectations for Robinson or Hall in the 2023 season?