Arrelious Benn missed one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last three games due to a concussion, and another one with a neck injury. And he'll take that any day over the way his rookie NFL season ended.
In 2010, as the Buccaneers were fighting down the stretch for a playoff spot, Benn began to turn his game up a notch. He had his first 100-yard game in a narrow December win in Washington – a must-have victory for Tampa Bay's postseason hopes – and made a string of big plays during that month, averaging 22.2 yards per catch over a four-game stretch. Overall, 16 of the 25 catches he would record in his debut campaign came during his last seven outings.
Unfortunately, that seven-game run ended a week before the Bucs' playoff chase did. Benn did not play in the Week 17 win at New Orleans that improved Tampa Bay's record to 10-6 and kept them in the hunt right down to the last hours of the season. (They would eventually lose a tiebreaker for the last playoff spot to the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Green Bay Packers). Benn didn't play because the week before, against the Seattle Seahawks, he tore the anterior cruciate and lateral cruciate ligaments – ACL and LCL – in his left knee.
On one hand, the timing of Benn's injury allowed him to experience most of his rookie season. On the other hand, it threatened to make his sophomore campaign less enjoyable. The surgery, treatment and rehabilitation process to treat an ACL tear generally lasts six to nine months, and with some players it is longer than that before they are back to pre-injury form. A late-December knee injury immediately sets the clock ticking on next year's training camp.
That's what Benn had to deal with, and he did so successfully. He was worked slowly back into action in training camp and played in only one of the Bucs' four preseason games. But he was back in his starting "Z," or flanker, position for opening day of the regular season. Until those two minor late-season injuries, he started the first 13 games (as well as game 15 in between) and upped his production to 30 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns. He continued to be one of Josh Freeman's best big-play threats, averaging a team-best 14.7 yards per catch. That's a strong yardage average, akin to what Marques Colston, Greg Jennings and Dez Bryant put up in 2011, though obviously with a lower volume of catches.
It could have been more, however; at least, that's what Benn believes. While he succeeded in returning from a serious knee injury without missing any playing time, he was still not as far along as he feels he could have been. In addition to his rehab process, he also had to deal with the lack of an offseason program, as did every player in the league, due to the labor discord that lasted from March through July.
Neither one of those issues is in play as Benn's 2012 offseason begins, and he's excited by what he will be able to accomplish in the coming months.
"It will be a chance for me to get in better shape," said the former second-round pick out of the University of Illinois. "I didn't play this season in shape. It's a chance for me to learn the game better, see things and understand better. And it's a chance to get with Josh, work on timing and see what he sees. [I can] go out there and be a better route-runner and be a better overall football player."
The Bucs very much liked Benn's wide range of skills when they plucked him with the 39th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Tampa Bay also took Syracuse wide receiver Mike Williams in the fourth round of that draft, and Williams made a more immediate ascent to the starting lineup than Benn, but the two were starting together by Week Four. Benn is a very solid 6-2 and 220 pounds, with powerful legs that made him a dangerous runner after the catch at Illinois. He's a good blocker with reliable hands and the speed to get downfield, as indicated by his career 15.2 yards per catch.
Williams' production has outpaced Benn's so far, but the Bucs believe there is plenty of untapped potential in the latter receiver, and that his third season may be his breakout campaign, as it is for so many young players. That he can concentrate on the playbook and his chemistry with Freeman in the coming months, rather than the time-consuming rehab that comes with a torn ACL, is reason to share that belief.
Even in the most immediate sense, Benn's smoother ride into the offseason this time around is a benefit. Players who end the season with an injury that requires a significant amount of rehab find themselves right back in the training room in January, while many of their teammates scatter. Around the NFL, the first four to six weeks of the offseason are a time of rest and recovery for players who have fought through aches and pains to make it through the season.
Benn will get a chance to do that this offseason, a chance he didn't have a year ago. He's looking forward to it, believing the time away will allow him to come back in better shape, mentally and physically, for the team's offseason program.
"The offseason will benefit me a lot this year," said Benn. "It's a chance for me to rest, not jump right into rehab and be all around football. Sometimes you need to get away from it."
That time away will also give Benn an opportunity to think about the Buccaneers' disappointing 2011 season, and what needs to be done to turn the team's fortunes around. Around the locker room on the day after the season finale in Atlanta, Benn's veteran teammates echoed a message about rededication and commitment to the team in the coming months. The now-third-year receiver sounds like one of the young players who is ready to meet that challenge…and he won't have rehab to hold him back.
"It's pretty frustrating dealing with the type of season we had, knowing what we were really capable of, showing the signs, the things that we did last year," said Benn. "This year, we kind of lost that hunger. We need to get back to going out there and executing, being chipper and just enjoying football."