Geno Atkins has a fan in young Rams D-Tackle Aaron Donald.
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Two guys the Bengals defense needs to return to optimum form are staring at different stages of their comeback from knee surgery.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins signaled the beginning of a normal offseason by playing in Sunday night's Pro Bowl and WILL backer Vontaze Burfict is getting used to crutches after his recent tricky micro fracture knee surgery that has the club concerned about his return.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther spoke with Burfict last week and is encouraged by how he sounds. Guenther said he felt like he was talking to that extremely resolved undrafted rookie of 2012.
"Oh yeah. That's what he sounded like," Guenther said. "Very focused. Very determined. He really sounded great. Best frame of mind he's had."
Head coach Marvin Lewis confirmed last week that Burfict had a second knee surgery in wake of an arthroscopic procedure and the Los Angeles surgeon, Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache, has been apparently authorized by Burfict's people to take media inquiries. On Monday he emphasized he's optimistic Burfict can return to his 2013 Pro Bowl form while being ready for late July's start of training camp.
What has been perceived as near death sentence for athletes*_ *creating tiny holes (or microfractures) in the bone to release bone marrow that helps build new cartilage _ has also had its share of successful stories in the NFL. Cornerback Rod Woodson and Dan Marino had it early in their careers and went to the Hall of Fame. Burfict's age, 24, should help. Hall-of-Fame sacker Bruce Smith played several more years after he had it at age 34.
Plus, Burfict's surgeon says his knee looks like one that can make it.
"There are things we look for that tells us he has a good chance of a comeback," ElAttrache said. "He's got a stable knee. The ligaments were good, his meniscus cartilage was adequate enough to be able to push on the side of the knee. There is always some level of concern, but this situation with the position of where the damage was and the overall condition of the rest of the knee lends to a pretty good prognosis he's going to come back. So far, so good."
* *The Bengals are concerned enough about the procedure that basically grows back cartilage that they are making their 2015 plans around a worst case scenario that Burfict doesn't get back this season and they plan to sign and draft linebackers using that as a guide. Another scenario is the PUP list (physically unable to play) as a possible option, where he would miss the first six weeks practice of the regular season.
But no one knows until Burfict shows up and tries to get on the field by mid-June's mandatory minicamp.
"Done with the right reasons for the right person and done the right way, there is a pretty good success rate for this. There are a lot of people with microfractures that come back," ElAttrache said. "The target is to be back unrestricted by (training) camp playing his position better than anybody….It's a process. You have to take it step by step. If you rush it, you can ruin it. But I think he'll be fine."
Atkins, on the other hand, is heading toward two years past his Halloween, 2013 ACL surgery, a significant milestone doctors and trainers point to for how long a player returns to his prior form.
"I don't know. I'm not a doctor," Atkins said after playing for the winning Irvin team in the Pro Bowl.
The Bengals are hopeful Atkins gets back to his 2012 12.5-sack form (after three this past season) and they think he can because now without rehab he can return to his first love of the weight room and hone his signature strength.
"I haven't really thought about it," Atkins said. "I'm looking forward to having an offseason and chill. Football season is over. It's a long season."
Atkins said it wasn't a tough season because of the rehab, he just said, "I didn't know what to expect….I thought I was pretty strong."
Atkins said he enjoyed the Pro Bowl experience even though he was an alternate and coming off the ACL challenge. Lockering in a corner with fellow defensive linemen Robert Quinn, Sheldon Richardson, Cameron Wake, DeMarcus Ware and Aaron Donald, Atkins said, "It's a good time playing with Sheldon, Aaron, Ware, Cameron. It's good fellowship. It's good to meet guys from other teams and experience what type of person they are."
Donald, the rookie from the Rams, was delighted to play with Atkins. When the 6-1, 285-pound Donald went No. 14 in the first round despite his height last May, it was correlation to the impact the 6-1, 303-pound Atkins has had on the NFL.
"I watched him a lot while I was in college and then to play with him on the same line, it was fun," Donald said. "I'm trying to learn different things I don't know not from the coaches and listen to the older guys that have experience."
Donald left with an Atkins power pass rush move, "The Stutter Bull Rush," as well as a Geno Atkins Bengals helmet.
"It's going right in the trophy case," Donald said.
The Bengals are hoping Burfict and Atkins fill up their cases with NFL Comeback Player of the Year awards.