Zulgad: After scare, Toby Gerhart is ready to run with opportunity
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Toby Gerhart doesn't remember feeling pain after hearing a pop in his left knee in the third quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' regular-season finale last Jan. 1 against the Chicago Bears.
What stood out for the running back was the panic that raced through his mind. "What just happened to my knee?" Gerhart recalls thinking. "Did I pop the big one? Am I going to need surgery?"
A week earlier Gerhart had seen his teammate Adrian Peterson suffer a gruesome injury to his left knee in Washington. Peterson had torn the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.
Now, Gerhart wondered just how much damage he might have done as he hobbled off the Metrodome turf.
Was it his ACL, too?
Good news came quickly as MRI results revealed Gerhart had suffered a partial tear of the MCL. He was elated. Sure it's a bit odd for anyone to be happy to find out they have torn a ligament in their knee, but in this case Gerhart considered it a best-case scenario.
"That was kind of a celebratory thing," he said. "Even though you don't want to celebrate an injury, that was the best thing that could have happened in that situation. It was definitely a panic moment, but thankfully it was something simple and easy and I'm back to running full speed."
Said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: "That was a scary moment. We were relieved when we found out it wasn't an ACL or something that severe. ... Just glad it wasn't as bad as it originally looked."
More good news came a month later when doctors decided the tear would heal on its own and surgery wouldn't be necessary.
Gerhart discussed his close call this week after completing a practice that was part of the Vikings' Organized Team Activities at Winter Park. He wore a brace on his left knee but assured reporters that is nothing new.
Gerhart said he has been wearing a brace on the knee since he injured it while playing at Stanford, but normally it is hidden under his uniform pants.
Gerhart, of course, was a standout running back for the Cardinal and is hoping that entering his third NFL season he can begin to recapture some of that success at this level.
He is prepared to play a far more substantial role in the Vikings' offense than he did in his first two years.
Peterson is doing everything in his power to return for the regular-season opener on Sept. 9 against Jacksonville, but the Vikings are going to have to be cautious about allowing him to hurry back from such a major injury.
Right now, Gerhart is the Vikings' top running back.
Even when Peterson returns, Gerhart figures to be a bigger part of the ground game in a league that often features teams with two quality running backs.
The 25-year-old Gerhart played in 15 games as a rookie and rushed for 322 yards on 81 attempts (4.0 average) with one touchdown. He also caught 21 passes for 167 yards and much to his dismay lost all three footballs that he put on the ground.
The lasting memory of Gerhart's rookie season was of him arriving at training camp in Mankato - the Vikings had made a trade with Houston to move up in the second round to select him - and literally being roughed up during practices.
This not-so-kind "welcome to the NFL, rookie" type of hazing appeared to leave Gerhart shaken.
Last year, Gerhart appeared far more confident as he ran for 531 yards on 109 carries (4.9 average) with one touchdown. He caught 23 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns. Gerhart also only fumbled once and it did not result in a turnover.
Part of the reason for Gerhart's increase in carries in 2011 was because he started five games. This included a stretch of three in a row in late November and early December when Peterson was out because of a high ankle sprain.
In those games, Gerhart rushed for 225 yards on 57 carries with a touchdown. He then ran for a career-high 109 yards on 11 rushes on Christmas Eve against the Redskins in the game Peterson was injured.
"I was definitely more comfortable in general all the way around last year," Gerhart said. "As a rookie, you're new to a system and you don't want to make a mistake. I was protecting Brett Favre. I didn't want to blow a blitz. I was playing a lot of third downs and (didn't want to) get him blindsided.
"There was a lot more hesitation in terms of looking ... deer in the headlights kind of thing. But last year I was comfortable, confident and just went out and played. I played instinctually, like I always have. I think as a result I played better."
Asked about Gerhart's progression from his first season to his second, Frazier said: "The thing that stuck out was the breakaway plays. He had a number of plays where it was just him and maybe one other guy.
"You saw the power in that first year, you saw it at times where he'd break tackles, but to see him get out in front of the linebackers and the secondary at times, we hadn't always seen that burst and that was the one thing that came up.
"He's a deceptively quick guy, but his power shows up then, his speed shows up as well and that's something you don't always associate with Toby's style of running. You think of him more as a bruiser but he showed some breakaway speed as well."
Gerhart is listed at 6-feet, 231 pounds by the Vikings and says he hasn't put on any pounds, but there is no question his body looks different this spring. Gerhart's arms are bigger than they were at the end of last season and the bit of baby fat he seemed to carry on his face as a rookie is gone.
"I was trying to get the guns going a little bit," Gerhart said, laughing, before adding, "I was trying to get a little stronger. My weight is pretty much the same. I was just trying to get more lean mass, as Coach (Tom) Kanavy would say, and a little less fat I guess."
Frazier said the physical changes made by Gerhart are a combination of what Kanavy, the Vikings' strength and conditioning coach, and Gerhart felt was a good idea.
"He is still a developing guy and there are some things we're going to find out in these OTA's before we send him home and come back to training camp," Frazier said. "We'll give him a prescribed weight, but we want to take a look at where he is right now and just see how it would affect his quickness because there's a good chance he's really going to have to carry the lead early on or be in a bigger role in the early part of the season."
Gerhart would welcome that.
He is signed through the 2013 season and if he can increase his workload and prove he has the potential to be a No. 1 running back, there is a chance someone will give Gerhart that shot in 2014.
Gerhart, though, said he isn't thinking about that right now.
"This league changes so much," he said. "Every year I'm just fighting to be on a team, and I've got two more years here until my contract is up and we'll see what happens. But if I just go out, put things on tape, help the team win, everything will fall into place."