What’s the recovery timeline for an Achilles tear? Injury expert weighs in on Aaron Rodgers’ outlook

The 2023 NFL campaign is just one week old, and Achilles injuries have already claimed two players’ seasons.

Aaron Rodgers played only four snaps in his first game as a New York Jet before tearing his Achilles, one of professional sports’ most devastating injuries. The 39-year-old was helped off the field less than five minutes into New York’s “Monday Night Football” game against the Buffalo Bills and was ruled out for the season after an MRI on Tuesday confirmed the Jets’ worst fears.

On Sunday, Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins exited his team’s game against the Houston Texans with the injury, a brutal blow to the 24-year-old’s contract year.

Rodgers and Dobbins’ recovery could vary.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, full healing of a torn Achilles tendon takes about four to six months, with longer timelines to be able to safely perform high-impact activities like running and jumping. That estimate is for average civilians and not professional athletes who need their bodies to perform at an extremely high level on a daily basis.

Other notable athletes with Achilles injuries

Rodgers and Dobbins are far from the first players in the league to tear their Achilles in recent years. Others include Cam Akers, Tarik Cohen, James Robinson, Justice Hill and Marlon Mack.

In the NBA, the injury is also fairly common, with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Wesley Matthews and Kobe Bryant among those to sustain it in the last decade or so.



The Achilles Whisperer: How Kevin Durant helped Justin Moore, Klay Thompson and others with their recoveries

So what kind of recovery timeline and process might Rodgers be looking at? The Athletic looked to Inside Injuries’ Greg Scholz for some clarity.

What is the Achilles? What happens when ruptured?

The Achilles tendon connects the muscles in the calf to the heel bone. When you grab just above your ankle and squeeze the back of your leg, you can feel the Achilles. It’s very strong (fibrous), so tears/ruptures are more rare than something like tendonitis. The strength of the tendon is why experts look for the “ripple” effect in diagnosing these injuries on film. For a rupture to occur, there has to be a powerful, often sudden, overstretching force.

Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive end Leonard Floyd

Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive end Leonard Floyd during the first quarter of the “Monday Night Football” game at MetLife Stadium. (Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)

Steps in the recovery process

In the first few weeks post-rupture, it’s basically immobilization and then setting up a recovery plan. Ruptures can be treated with either surgery or by using a cast or splint. For athletes, surgery is generally preferred because it lowers the risk of re-injury. However, there are other complications that can arise post-surgery, such as infection or not giving the area enough time to heal after surgery, that non-surgical options don’t have.

After surgery, the recovering area is immobilized again for around two weeks until some range of motion (ROM) exercises are introduced that mainly involve moving the foot around. If there is pain in those exercises, it’s considered a setback and the exercises should be stopped immediately. Around the five-week mark, foot ROM exercises continue (which must be pain-free) with some stretching. For an athlete, this could be in a pool because of reduced impact and load. At this point, the ability to bear weight should be tested as well.

Around the two-month mark, the cast or boot should be used less and less frequently. Balance will be tested, ROM exercises continue to ramp up and walking mechanics should be tested as well. Around the three-month mark, Rodgers — if he follows this path — should be able to complete some simple exercises like calf raises.

Rodgers could return to some football activities at the four-month mark. First, though, his gait needs to look correct, his ROM should be close to where it was pre-injury (although it doesn’t have to be 100 percent) and there should be no pain throughout this process. He could start jumping (more of a hop) and jogging. This process continues to ramp up and workouts become more tailored to his position. If all goes well, this could be completed in around six months. Given Rodgers’ age, however, this might not be the most likely scenario, but it’s worth acknowledging as a possibility.

Quarterbacks and Achilles injuries

Rodgers doesn’t need the explosive lower half that a running back might need, but this is still a significant injury. Throws, escaping pressure, scrambling for first downs — all these require a strong and flexible lower half.

Differences for football vs. basketball

Durant’s Achilles rupture in 2019 is a prime example of a similar injury. Durant missed all of the 2019-20 season and didn’t return until December of the 2020-21 season, totaling 552 days. He underwent surgery.

What’s notable about that injury and Rodgers’ tear is that both players had calf issues leading up to the injury. Rodgers missed time in June with a calf strain. Calf strains don’t always serve as a precursor to Achilles ruptures, but they can contribute. Any sort of inflammation or minor tears in the calf muscles put more pressure on the Achilles. Even if it’s not much, it can be enough to weaken the Achilles. This is why during calf strain recovery it is very important to follow a strict recovery plan that avoids putting undue pressure and stress on surrounding structures.

KD’s recovery was longer because the nature of the sport requires much more explosive lower-body movement at a much higher frequency. Basically, Rodgers shouldn’t miss 552 days. A somewhat recent example is Akers rupturing his Achilles before the start of the 2021 season and returning in the playoffs. So don’t write off Rodgers this season just yet.

What’s working against Rodgers?

Rodgers’ age is big here. Older athletes tend to have longer recovery times because as we age, our blood flow and elasticity decrease ever so slightly. This means that he might need an extra week or month. In other words, things might need to be more gradual.

Required reading

(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)

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