Nose tackle Gabe Watson, coming back from a second knee surgery, dodges through some bags during an OTA this week.
The pins were digging into the tendon, and there wasn?t much Gabe Watson could do about it. The same went when he felt the wire, inserted with the pins, touching the innards of his right knee.
?Metal,? the Cardinals? nose tackle said, ?is not supposed to be in your body.?
It was there for a reason, though, after his freak treadmill accident that fractured his kneecap last April. Even though Watson eventually returned to play most of the 2008 season, the metal in his knee never let him forget ? to the point where Watson had to have more surgery earlier this offseason to relieve the pain.
Seven weeks past his second operation, Watson ?feels, no lie, 100 times better than last year.? He expects to finally be cleared for full work in OTAs next week. And he wants to resume working toward regaining the starting nose tackle spot that was likely his if it weren?t for the infamous treadmill.
?After talking to my Dad, everything happens for a reason,? Watson said. ?A lot of bad came out of it thinking I could be in this situation or that situation. But a lot of good came out of it too. My first game back, I had a sack. I don?t think I had a bad year last year at all, but I was playing on one leg holding down the middle pretty good. This year, I?ll try to play on two.?
Veteran Bryan Robinson was the surprise starter in 2008, moving out of position after Watson got hurt and Branch disappointed coaches by a lack of progress. Robinson is the player Watson must leap-frog this season (Branch is expected to remain behind Watson on the depth chart). Having a rotation of players, especially in the high-intensity spot of anchoring the front of a 3-4 defense, is crucial. But Watson wants to be the one called first.
?Anyone who wants to be on a team should want to be a starter, whether it is me, Alan or B-Rob,? Watson said. ?I still look at myself as a starter, even though I was hurt and didn?t start again until the Super Bowl. Injuries set me back, and I honestly believe that?s what held me back.?
That?s why the what-if game is difficult for Watson to avoid, and why it stuck with him even after he had returned to the field last season and got a sack in his first game back, against Buffalo.
The mental hurdle coming back from an injury ? especially a knee injury for an interior lineman, who always has bodies falling around his legs ? is immense. Watson?s confidence in his knee wasn?t great, and it has showed.
?You can tell, he was a little timid,? said Branch, who has known Watson from back when the two were teammates at the University of Michigan. ?He is just focusing on trusting that leg to get it back all the way.?
Watson?s difficulties weren?t just in his head, however. There was the matter of the pins in his knee bothering him. He had trouble lifting more than 20 pounds when he used the leg extension machine. Just getting down in his stance made Watson flinch.
After the game in the cold and snow at New England ? ironically, Watson?s best game of the year, with eight solo tackles ? the pain got worse. At that point, Watson was pretty sure he?d have to have another procedure, although while he sat out the regular-season finale, he played all four postseason games.
?Every time the tendon flexed, you could feel it stabbing,? Watson said.
It?s a whole lot different now. Watson is itching to be back full speed. He played last season at 332 pounds, much lighter than when he first got in the league, and he and strength and conditioning coach John Lott have decided to get even lower. Lott sees Watson playing between 318 and 322, which is about where Watson was during his stellar junior season in college. Watson would like to try to get to 315 to 318, which is where he played in high school ? although he?s willing to do 320.
He knows he?s not going to get last season back. He doesn?t feel he played that poorly, but he definitely wants to see how he can perform without the knee causing a problem.
?I know I wasn?t at my best but I still did things to help the team,? Watson said. ?Now, it?s just a matter of getting stronger.?
?I will do whatever it takes,? he added with a grin. ?If it takes for me to go 100 percent every single play until the coaches tell me to slow down, I have to do that. And if they tell me to slow down, I may go a couple more plays.?
The Cardinals completed their second week of OTAs Thursday. The players are off until workouts resume Monday.
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 5/28/09.