Falcons lose Anderson for season

Tuesday, October 2, 2001

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- For the second time in three years, the Atlanta Falcons will have to play most of the season without Jamal Anderson.

Anderson, an All-Pro in 1998 when the Falcons reached the Super Bowl, learned Monday that he tore a ligament in left knee against the Arizona Cardinals.

He will require season-ending surgery, dealing a major blow to a Falcons team that collapsed in 1999 when Anderson went out with the same injury to his right knee.

The other players were stunned by the news as they arrived for a team meeting at the Falcons suburban training complex.

"Here we go again," said cornerback Ray Buchanan, who didn't have time to savor Sunday's 34-14 victory over the Cardinals. "We've got to find a way to move on. I don't want to go through what I did two years ago."

Both times, Anderson tore the anterior cruciate ligament on plays where he wasn't even touched by an opposing player.

The latest injury occurred during an 80-yard touchdown drive on the game's opening series. Anderson -- on his 29th birthday -- was running right on a routine sweep when he planted hard on his left knee and tumbled to the grass for a 1-yard gain.

The play didn't even count. Arizona was penalized for being offsides.

"I feel bad for this football team, but I really feel bad for Jamal," coach Dan Reeves said. "He worked so hard to get back to the point where he was 100 percent and playing well."

In 1998, Anderson set an NFL record with 410 carries and a franchise mark with 1,846 yards rushing as the Falcons captured their first NFC title.

The next season, after holding out in training camp during a contract dispute, Anderson was injured in Week 2 against the Dallas Cowboys. He took a handoff, tried to change directions and collapsed to the turf.

The Falcons, 14-2 the previous year, slumped to 5-11 without their best runner.

Last season, Anderson started all 16 games behind a woeful offensive line and struggled to regain his form. He still managed to gain 1,024 yards -- the fourth 1,000-yard season of his career -- but the Falcons went 4-12.

Now, Anderson's career is in doubt.

"Any time a running back has knee surgery, you worry about it," Reeves said. "I wouldn't count him out, because of the dedication he had with the other one. But it's very difficult. Very few people come back from one. To come back from two surgeries would really be difficult."

Even if Anderson comes back next year, history has shown it takes a full season to get comfortable with a reconstructed knee. That pushes his recovery time into 2003, when he'll be 31.

The Falcons (2-1), who have won two straight after an overtime loss at San Francisco, believe they are better equipped to deal with losing Anderson the second time around.

In 1999, he was replaced by Ken Oxendine and Byron Hanspard, who averaged about 3 yards per carry and managed only two touchdowns between them. Both players are now out of the league.

Now, the starting job goes to Maurice Smith, a second-year player who was signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent from North Carolina A&T.

Smith, who didn't carry the ball in Atlanta's first two games, ran for 80 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Cardinals. The 235-pounder also showed better speed than Anderson, going 79 yards for a touchdown on a short pass.

"Assuming Maurice reaches his potential, they are similar runners," quarterback Chris Chandler said. "But he has a ways to go to get to Jamal's level."

The Falcons will be hard-pressed to compensate for Anderson's pass-catching skills, ability to pick up blitzes and leadership role in the locker room.

"It's the intangible things you don't see," Reeves said, "as a leader, the inspiration he is to our players. Those are things you miss, too."

Anderson rushed for 184 yards in his first two games and caught a 94-yard touchdown pass in a victory over Carolina. He had four carries for 6 yards in his brief appearance Sunday.

Smith had more carries against Arizona that he did in his entire rookie season, when he ran 19 times for 69 yards.

"I didn't think my chance would come this early," Smith said. "It's kind of disappointing to think No. 32 is gone."

Anderson, eighth among active running backs with 5,330 yards, held out hope Sunday that his latest injury was not serious.

But an MRI test confirmed a complete tear of the ACL. Anderson, visibly shaken, refused to comment as he hobbled to his car.

He will undergo surgery in a week or two.

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