Michael Crabtree training camp 49ersIn Greek mythology, Achilles is often seen as the savagery of war personified. Apparent in this embodiment is rage and honor and grief — a whole mess of grief. If there is any trio of emotions shared between Michael Crabtree and 49er fans, it is those.

That Crabtree ruptured his Achilles seems poetic. After years of fighting foot injury after foot injury, it’s an ankle injury that befalls a man bigger than his stature; it is a ruptured tendon that tethers his rising star. Okay, so maybe that’s not poetic; maybe it’s ironic, or at least more ironic than encountering ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, is it not?

Well, whatever it is, it’s definitely unfortunate for both Crabtree’s career and the team’s Super Bowl contention. Still, the likelihood that Crabtree’s return this season is high. The extent to which he’ll contribute is anyone’s guess, however.

A review of literature by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) found many athletes return to their respective sport after only six months.  “Five studies (of 23) reported that 83%-100% of patient returned to sports at six months,” the AAOS writes. “Ten studies reported that 32-100% of patients returned to sports at 12 months or more.”

This of course fits with initial reports that Crabree should return by season’s end. However, whether or not Crabtree will be a effective is another thing entirely. In fact, a study published in the University of Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Journal found that wide receivers were 77% less effective three years after their return from the injury.

Screen shot 2013-05-23 at 12.12.41 PMThe study determined effectiveness using a “power rating,” which  was determined using an equation centered on receiving yards and touchdowns. While the stats-centric focus is problematic for a number of reasons, the findings were, nonetheless, of great interest.

“Even though the power ratings formula cannot account for certain valuable intangible qualities of players, such as leadership and toughness, and cannot account for factors that may have negatively influenced power ratings, such as being traded to another team, being released from the team for reasons other than injury, or simply increased player age,” the study notes, “our group has still shown power ratings to be reliable and valid measures of player performance, with high test-retest probability.”

One explanation for the decreased effectiveness might be illustrated by a study sponsored by the University Hospital of Boston University Medical Center. According to the study, “A retrospective review of 45 surgical cases in 37 patients was performed. … There were 24 cases of Achilles tendinitis and/or tenosynovitis, 14 cases with retrocalcaneal bursitis, and 7 with a combination of both.”

Given the importance of cutting for wide receivers, ankle pain or stiffness would seriously hamper their effectiveness. Though, as Dave Seibert points out, treatment with platelet-rich plasma could mitigate these effects while expediting recovery, there are no guarantees. Much like the Achilles of the Homeric tradition, Crabtree could be just a ghost of his former self when he returns.