What if ...

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What if ...
- Javon Walker's right knee holds up?
- The wideout has another Pro Bowl season?
- He is just what the Broncos need to succeed?

By Jim Armstrong
Denver Post Staff Writer
DenverPost.com

Baseball, Branch Rickey once said, is a game of inches. Then there's football, the game of ifs.

Take Javon Walker, for instance. If he's healthy, he's just what the Broncos need, a big, physical wideout who can stretch the field on one play and make a tough third-down catch on another. If his right knee holds up, he could become the Broncos' most significant offseason acquisition of the post-Elway era. If he's the player he was with the Packers, he could be the difference between the Broncos making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl.

If, if, if.

There's no way around it. When you blow out your anterior cruciate ligament, you become a questionable commodity. The good news for the Broncos is, while Walker's future is uncertain, the exclamation points following his name far outnumber the question marks.

"We think he's one of the top receivers in the league," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "If he's the top one, time will tell."

Whoa, whoa, whoa. The top one, as in the best in the business, the head of the table, the top of the food chain?

"He's got a chance," Shanahan said. "We wouldn't have signed him unless we had a lot of confidence in him. You don't give up a second-round draft choice unless you think a guy is going to be on your team for a while."

In late April, Walker couldn't fully extend his right leg. With the first workout of Camp Shanahan 2006 scheduled for Friday at Dove Valley, the Broncos are confident Walker will be healthy and productive. But the top wideout in the league? Walker says he can get there.

"That's definite," Walker said. "My Pro Bowl year (2004), I'm trying to get back to that level. I'm not going to live on the hype. That's why I'm here every day working. I can't let what I've done in the past dictate what I'm going to do. I want to come out and be better than I was. I want to give people a chance to say, 'You know what, that was a great move."'

This much is certain before he breaks his first sweat in training camp: Acquiring Walker was a move the Broncos didn't hesitate one second to make. When the Packers ceded to Walker's trade demands and made him available for the 37th pick in the draft, Shanahan and his staff jumped at the opportunity.

"How they pulled that off, I don't know," said Mike Heimerdinger, the Broncos' de facto offensive coordinator. "I was as shocked as everybody else. We all had a vote and it was unanimous. I was like, 'Heck, yeah.' It was kind of a no-brainer."

Heimerdinger was the Broncos' receivers coach from 1995-99, when he oversaw the development of Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey into one of the NFL's elite pass-catching tandems. McCaffrey caught 101 passes and Smith 100 in 2000, a production level Heimerdinger said he believes Walker and Smith can match.

"You would hope so," Heimerdinger said. "I think you can do that. Because of our run game, we're always going to get pretty good matchups with the wide receivers because people are going to play an eight-man front. That's what you want, one-on-ones. We should be able to get those matchups, so I'm hoping those guys can get those kinds of numbers."

Smith's 100 receptions in 2000 remain the second-highest total of his career. Walker caught 89 passes with Green Bay in 2004 after beginning his NFL career with 23 catches in 2002 and 41 in 2003.

He never had a chance to hit the 100 mark last season, tearing up his knee in the Packers' season opener.

Numbers don't lie

Now for the numbers inside the numbers, the ones that suggest a healthy Walker could be the most complete package the Broncos have had at wide receiver. If he's the same player he was before the injury, he would be more explosive than Smith and more physical than Ashley Lelie, the Broncos' other starting wideout last season.

Walker caught nine touchdown passes in his second season and 12 in his breakout year of 2004. Smith had six touchdown catches last season, Lelie one. Then there's the matter of third-down conversions, by far the Broncos' most vexing issue in recent seasons. Denver finished 22nd in the league last season in third-down conversions at 36.2 percent. And that number gets uglier when you take a closer look at the Broncos' third-down production.

They ranked 27th in third-down conversions through the air, converting 30.6 percent compared with the Colts, who led the league at 48.6 percent.

"The stats don't lie," Smith said. "Our third downs were horrible. When we won the Super Bowl, we were like one or two in the league in third downs. That's how you get more points. That's how you stay on the field. That's how you help your defense. ... With a guy like Javon on our team, it helps us. It gives us another weapon."

Smith made 16 catches on third down last season, 12 for first downs. Lelie, who is expected to continue his holdout into training camp, had nine third-down catches, eight of which moved the chains. Walker? He caught 31 balls on third down in 2004, 24 going for first downs.

Force is with Walker

The obvious question: How big a force would a healthy Walker be for the Broncos on third down?

"He's a force on any down," said Ray Sherman, Walker's receivers coach in Green Bay.

"I love the guy. He's got special skills. Trust me, you put the ball in his area and he's going to make the play. That's the kind of guy he is. He's a physical guy. You'll see."

He's a physical guy who can go over the middle and also get open downfield. Oh, and did we mention Walker's run blocking was one of his most attractive attributes in the eyes of Broncos' coaches? It's called the complete package - if he's healthy.

How many receivers in the NFL can match Walker's versatility? Sherman came up with three: Terrell Owens, Donald Driver and Steve Smith. There may be a few more, but you get the point. The list can be knocked off before Maurice Clarett finishes his next 40-yard dash.

More numbers to consider: Walker caught 14 passes of 25-plus yards in 2004. That's one fewer than Smith and Lelie combined for last season. Touchdown catches? You want to talk touchdown catches? Walker's 21 touchdown catches during the 2003-04 seasons were more than any Broncos receiver has caught in back-to-back seasons in franchise history.

Like we said, the man makes for exclamation points. And he's only 27, meaning Walker has plenty of time to evolve into the Broncos' go-to guy. Smith has filled that role admirably for much of his career, but at 36 he'll have to pass the torch sooner, not later.

Marvels of medicine

Sounds like a plan, but it comes with strings attached. Or should we say ligaments repaired?

Everyone is saying all the right things when it comes to Walker's comeback from surgery. But since no one knows what fate has in store for him, let's stick to the facts about his damaged right knee.

First, thanks to the wonders of medical technology, the surgery wasn't as invasive as it would have been 20 years ago. Walker has a small arthroscopic puncture on the knee, something he joked about during a recent photo shoot for The Post.

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To be continued...
 
"My other knee looks worse," he said.

The advancements in ACL surgery were a major factor in Shanahan's decision to give up an early second-round pick for Walker. If the injury had occurred in a previous generation, Walker's future would have been much more uncertain.

"No question about it," Shanahan said. "Most of the guys today who have ACLs early in the season come back even stronger from the year before. A lot depends on the seriousness of the surgery. Some of these ACLs are completely blown and others are just a regular tear. Terrell Davis, for example, had a much different ACL than Javon. It was much worse."

Fact is, most NFL teams have a handful of key players who've had ACL surgeries at some point in their careers. The Broncos' list includes, among others, Smith, Matt Lepsis, Tom Nalen and Ian Gold. Then there's John Elway, who played 16 NFL seasons without an ACL in his left knee.

Rehabilitation key

None of that guarantees a successful comeback for Walker, of course, but all signs point to a big season in his first year in Denver. And if you need more proof, check out Walker's leg. He won't be wearing a knee brace, a decision he came to after consulting with, among others, longtime Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos.

"In today's rehabilitative process, the mind-set is you don't need one," Antonopulos said. "The whole process is much different than what it used to be. He's at a phase where he'll have to go through some mental stuff, but he's doing very well with that. Every day he seems to be better, less tentative. The bottom line is we want him to be able to participate 100 percent by the first game."

As encouraged as the Broncos are by Walker's progress, it isn't like he's been ahead of the healing curve from Day One. To the contrary. Dr. Walt Lowe, the Texans' team surgeon, performed the surgery last October. Since Walker knew he was leaving the Packers, he stayed in Houston to rehab before returning to Florida State in January.

"He was working out on his own," Antonopulos said. "He thought he could just go back and do it. He had some soreness and stiffness, so he went back to Dr. Lowe in March and had a scope to clean out some scar tissue. It was during that time frame where he was traveling to different NFL teams, too."

When the Broncos made the deal, the message from their medical staff was loud and clear.

"Once we got him, the first thing we said was, 'You're going to come here right now, next week,"' Antonopulos said. "When he came to us, he wasn't able to get full extension on the leg. Gosh, you'd want that the first few weeks after surgery."

And so it was that Walker put his fate in the hands of the Broncos' medical staff. It was during that process when Antonopulos became more convinced that Walker will rediscover his Pro Bowl ways.

"He's got a great attitude," Antonopulos said. "He's done all we've asked of him. Everything psychologically and physically is geared toward that first game. That's the goal he and I have talked about from Day One, and he's followed it every inch of the way."

Walker will be relegated to one daily practice during camp, but expects to be ready for the season opener Sept. 10 at St. Louis. The difficult part, he said, is trying to be cautious and methodical at a time when he's so excited to be joining a team that fell one game short of the Super Bowl.

"Making plays on the field doesn't just happen," Walker said. "It's because you're part of a good organization. I'm excited just thinking about the caliber of the team, where they were a year ago, the new acquisitions....They fell one game short last year. Hopefully we can win that one game, go to the Super Bowl and win it."

Catch Jim Armstrong from 6-9 a.m. during "The Press Box" on ESPN radio. He can be reached at 303-820-5452 or [email protected].

Playing 20 questions with Javon
Staff writer Jim Armstrong helps us get to know new Broncos wide receiver Javon Walker by asking him 20 questions, some serious and some silly. Walker was acquired from the Green Bay Packers on draft day for a second-round draft pick. He was selected by Green Bay in the first round of the 2002 draft:

1 Favorite all-time athlete, any sport? Michael Jordan. "Because he's Michael Jordan."

2 Biggest influence in your life? My mother. "She was a single mother raising a young man who never had a father around. For me to be doing what I am today, it's because of what she instilled in me. It's about having faith, being confident, never saying 'I can't."'

3 Last book you read? "Rich Dad, Poor Dad (What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money - That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not)" by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter.

4 Favorite all-time TV show? "'Martin.' I'm a Martin (Lawrence) and Jamie Foxx guy."

5 Favorite all-time movie? "'Dodgeball' - because it's so funny."

6 You would have made it to the big leagues if not for ... ? "Those darn curveballs."

7 Deepest, darkest secret that nobody knows about you? "My middle name." So what is it? "Can't say."

8 Thing that has surprised you most about Mike Shanahan? "He's real easy-going."

9 Ginger or Mary Ann? "Ginger."

10 Most indelible early impression of Denver? "The rain and cold in April. Now that I've seen the good weather, it's great, but when it was snowing in April, I was like, 'Oh, my goodness, I'm going back to another Green Bay."'

11 Best habit? "I take care of my body."

12 Worst habit? "I eat too much. That's why I have to take care of my body."

13 Favorite junk food? "KitKat bars."

14 Best friend in football? "Darren Sharper."

15 Best friend among your new teammates? "Champ Bailey-slash-Al Wilson-slash-Gerard Warren. I knew them before I came here."

16 Best advice you ever received from your mother? "Never say you can't."

17 Nastiest hit you ever took? "Saints safety Sammy Knight in my rookie year. It happened real early in the game and I didn't want to play anymore. I said to myself, 'Come on, man, you've got three quarters left."'

18 Best cover corner you've faced? "Champ Bailey."

19 Favorite musician? "Jay-Z."

20 Athletes should or shouldn't be role models? "We should. It's easy to say no, but then you might as well get out of the profession. You know kids are going to be watching."

http://www.denverpost.com/sports/ci_4084083
 
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