Say it isn’t so Harry, say it isn’t so! Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has torn his ACL and is now out for the rest of the 2019 season. This comes as a major blow to the defensive tackle depth as Phillips had begun to eat into Star Lotulelei’s snap count, almost splitting time evenly in Week 3’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals. While the ACL has become synonymous with doom and gloom in NFL injuries, today’s article will review the injury and implications for the 2020 season.
The ACL is a ligament that connects the tibia to the femur and runs medial to lateral — or inside to outside — acting as a stabilizer in the knee to prevent the femur from shifting too far forward over the tibia during movement. It also assists in preventing hyperextension in the knee. When the knee is loaded during activity such as cutting and sudden stops, the ACL is designed to keep the knee stable, but in the presence of injury, the ligament is overloaded which either stretches and partially tears or fully tears based on the activity. It is possible to live a normal lifestyle with an ACL-deficient knee, but nearly impossible to resume a high level of play post ACL tear without reconstruction as an adult.
Activities that cause the ACL to tear are direct blows such as a low block or a blow to the knee while the foot is planted. Non-contact typically happen when a player doesn’t land properly after jumping in the air, when they perform a sudden change in direction at a high speed, or when they attempt to quickly decelerate. Tears also occur with hyperflexion or hyperextension of the knee. In the event of ACL rupture, the knee buckles and there is usually immediate swelling, tenderness, loss of ROM, and pain. Risk factors include but are not limited to: gender, age, playing surface, level of play, biomechanical variances, previous injuries to the knee, equipment, and environmental conditions. Recent research has also shown that concussions can possibly increase the risk for injuries such as ACL due to slower reaction times.
Below is video from Thad Brown of WROC-TV showing an excellent view of the exact moment when we believe Phillips suffered his injury. The interesting thing about his injury is that the mechanism of injury is so subtle. When the video is shown frame by frame, there is the bent left knee with valgus force noted just prior to Phillips going down, but difficult to see without a trained eye.
Here's the play where Harrison Phillips apparently got injured. He's all the way to the right, in front of Matt Milano.— Thad (@thadbrown7) September 23, 2019
I don't see anything that goes wrong. No wrong steps. No contact. He just goes down. Appears to grab left knee. #Billsmafia@ProFootballDoc pic.twitter.com/2xkMdMD5AK
Here is further video that may support he suffered the initial ACL injury when Bills safety Jordan Poyer’s helmet hit into the outside of Phillips knee, but he was able play another play or two before the knee gave out and ended his season. This injury fits the mechanism for injury more than the original video released.
Hmmm. Well...— Thad (@thadbrown7) September 24, 2019
This is 2nd to last play of 2nd to last Bengals drive. Phillips takes a shot from Jordan Poyer in the left knee. Lotulelei in next play.
Phillips played 1st play of next drive, then came out.
Maybe this is the ACL injury. Thoughts? @ProFootballDoc #BillsMafia https://t.co/RopQ1Rbr1J pic.twitter.com/O0gOCWTPNS
To note, Phillips suffered an ACL injury on the same side back in 2015 during his sophomore year in college. He will likely have surgery in the coming days and begin rehab shortly after. Despite sustaining the same injury in the left knee, the rehab will be nearly identical with timelines. The one benefit for Phillips is that he knows what the rehab entails and knows what to expect.
There is research to support his ability to return from this injury as a man his size. In an article that I wrote for Cover 1 regarding Titans DT Jeffery Simmons, I outlined that 88.9% of offensive and defensive lineman return to play, but on average play two fewer seasons over their career. They take 11.3 months on average to return to play, but also take between 2-3 years to return to pre-injury form. The only risk factors outlined in the previous article that Phillips had for his most recent ACL injury was that he was under age 25 and he already had a previous ACL tear.
Phillips will be close to being cleared to play come training camp next summer but won’t be 100% for quite some time. By the time training camp starts in late July, he will be about ten months out from surgery. He will be able to run and participate in football activities, but he will likely be a step slower. His proprioception will be off as the neural connections will still be returning, unable to provide feedback to his body in order to move effectively as before. His range of motion and strength will allow him to play in some capacity and contribute. His 2020 season may mirror fellow Bills defensive player Trent Murphy from 2018.
He’ll likely make the 53-man roster out of camp but would ideally benefit from a limited snap count early in the season. The one benefit for Phillips is that he plays in close quarters, relying less on the ACL compared to high-skill positions such as running back and cornerback. Phillips would do well in a defensive tackle rotation like the team has done in the past few seasons. This would allow him to limit his snap count but get live reps needed to get back into football shape. We won’t see Phillips get back to pre-injury form before 2021. We may see flashes later in the second half of 2020, but he may be effective in 2020 if the Bills make a deep playoff run.
While it’s a shame that this happened to such a well-liked player, it’s a reality of the game. This Bills team is all about the next man up mentality. Look for DTs Kyle Peko or Vince Taylor to come up from the practice squad to take over the roster spot. Best of luck to Harrison in his recovery and we can all look forward to his return next season.