August 28, 2021 was a typically humid and sticky late-summer night, but inside an unfamiliar training room on the service level of FedEx Field in Landover, Md., Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins’ emotions ran more like the scorching midday sun.
Shoulder pads off, lying face down on a training table, he’d just learned he tore the ACL, LCL, and meniscus in his left knee, as well as his hamstring.
He was 23-years-old, and about to begin his second NFL season, presumably as the Ravens’ top back — a key piece in the team’s unique run-first attack. Now, nearly 16 months later, Dobbins is still working to get his knee back in shape, even as he figures to be an important part of the Ravens’ Lamar-Jacksonless attack in Cincinnati tonight, where Baltimore will take on the Bengals in an AFC wild-card game (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC.)
Of course, he knew, as soon as the news hit on that training table, it very well could play out this way. Dobbins’ professional career relies on his ability to run and juke away from massive tacklers as best he can, so the reality of the injuries was devastating enough. The context only made it worse: Dobbins was hurt in a meaningless preseason game against Washington, after taking a helmet to the knee in a game he thought he wasn’t going to play in at all.
“He was hot,” said Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford, who recruited and coached Dobbins during a sparkling career with the Buckeyes. “He was literally in tears.”
Alford, a father figure of sorts to Dobbins, who lost his own dad when he was 15 years old, immediately texted Dobbins when he heard the news and saw video of him being carted off the then-Washington Football Team’s home field.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Dobbins replied, laying on the table in a training room. They messaged back and forth a little, then talked by phone later that night. A few days later, after surgery, Alford called Dobbins, who was still groggy from the anesthesia, and still angry and upset.
“He can sit there and bitch and moan and complain, which he got about 24 hours to do that,” Alford said, recalling the conversation. “And then you better pick it up and go handle your business appropriately.”
Handling his recovery took longer than expected and Dobbins’ left knee still hinders his explosiveness on long runs. Yet he’s been effective late in the season.
In a four-game stretch starting with the Ravens’ Dec. 11 win at Pittsburgh, Dobbins was more productive than any back in the league over the span, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He was an essential part of making the Ravens’ offense work to the extent it did (it scored only three touchdowns in those games) but then an interesting thing happened in Week 18 against the Bengals: Dobbins rested, and the offense got going a bit.
So adding Dobbins to that attack for the Sunday night rematch is a reason for Ravens fans to hope. Jackson won’t play due to a knee injury. His backup, Tyler Huntley, appears likely to start despite soreness in his throwing shoulder. If he can’t go, rookie Anthony Brown — who went undrafted — would play again. There’s a reason the Ravens are an 8.5-point underdog.
Which Dobbins does not mind.
“This team, I guess you could say that we’ve always been an underdog. But me, personally, I’ve always been an underdog,” Dobbins said in the Ravens’ locker room on Friday. “I ran for 2,000 yards [in a season] in college and still went second round. People still talked about, ‘I’m not good.’ I’ve averaged 5.9 yards per carry in my career. People still tell me I’m not good... I’m ready. I’m super ready.”
After the injuries and surgery to repair them, a grueling, slow rehabilitation process ensued for Dobbins, completed mostly with trainers in Los Angeles. “He attacked this thing,” Alford said, “like he’s done since the day I met him when he was 16 years old.”
Still, when Dobbins returned to the football field during training camp this year, questions remained. Torn knee ligaments are commonplace in the NFL, but for a running back they are still potentially career-ending — or at least career-altering.
The average career for a pro running back, given the wear and tear inherent to playing the position, is about three years. After a good rookie season — in which Dobbins racked up 805 yards, nine touchdowns and averaged six yards per carry, most of any first-year back — he didn’t take the field again until the third week of this season — his third as a pro. Then, when he did, he was not at full strength. Far from it.
Scar tissue in the knee showed up on an MRI before the Ravens’ regular-season opener this year. Dobbins could move around enough, but he still couldn’t bend his leg quite like he remembered before. “There was a lot of scar tissue in my knee, and it was hindering my flexion,” Dobbins later said.
Doctors raised the possibility of him having a knee scope to remove the scar tissue but said they preferred to wait until after the season.
Dobbins was limited in that first game back, against New England. He ran seven times for 23 yards, then rushed 13 times for 41 yards and a score against Buffalo, but he knew he wasn’t himself. If you listened closely, you might have heard uncharacteristic second-guessing in Dobbins’ voice around then.
Ahead of the Ravens’ Week 5 game against the Bengals, he said, “Maybe this week, I’ll reach the goal of getting past the 100-yard mark in a game. We’ll see, though. I know one thing: I’m going to run the ball hard, and I know my line is going to block hard for me.”
He ran just 8 times, for 44 yards — seemingly a positive sign. A week later, though, he managed just 15 yards on seven carries and realized that something had to change.
“I wasn’t on a snap count, but the way things were going, it’s kind of like I was on a snap count,” Dobbins said. “After that game, I went to sleep on it.”
He said he woke up in the middle of the night, heard God’s voice, and decided he had to have the scope to remove the scar tissue. Dobbins texted the Ravens’ head athletic trainer, Adrian Dixon, around 3 a.m., he recalls, and said he wanted to get the procedure done.
The scope — performed by Ravens team doctor and orthopedic surgeon Leigh Ann Curl — was a “smashing success,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at the time, noting that there was more scar tissue than the MRI showed. Eight weeks later, in his return to game action, Dobbins rushed for 120 yards on 15 carries and the team’s only touchdown on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next week, in a loss at Cleveland, he had his second-straight 100-yard game, with 125 yards on 13 carries.
“I think he made a really smart decision to have the surgery,” Harbaugh said this week. “Only he knew how the knee felt, and when they went in, Dr. Curl — who is one of the best in the world at what she does — went in there and saw what she saw in real time, and she said, ‘Hey, this is something that is required.’ ”
Physically, Dobbins has only gotten stronger since the procedure. He’s still lacking the top-end speed he showed over three 1,000-plus yard seasons at Ohio State and then in flashes as a rookie with the Ravens.
Now, heading into Sunday’s playoff game in Cincinnati, he says he hasn’t felt better since before that gut-wrenching night back in August of 2021. “I feel real good,” he said Friday, “probably as close to 100% as I’ve been in a long time.”
He said he’s learned the value of patience, too, during the recovery. “Whenever things aren’t going the way you think they should, it can be hard to be patient, but the injury has made me so much more wise,” he said. “It’s helped me a lot. Now I’ve got a lot of patience. I feel like I’m a new man.”
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.