ASHBURN — The mystery of Josh Doctson’s Achilles’ tendons is still unsolved. The pain that started in the Redskins receiver’s left ankle, spread to his right, and limited the first-round pick to 31 snaps his rookie season disappeared before it was ever truly diagnosed, leaving Doctson eager to get back to football and the Redskins wondering if the phantom ailment is truly gone for good.
“The injury is pretty much nonexistent now,” Doctson said Wednesday, the second day of Redskins organized team activities. “I’ve been, the whole offseason, working on it every day, literally, to get back healthy for the start of OTAs and that was my goal and I’ve reached it.”
Had things worked out better last season, Doctson would be entering his second year as an established target for quarterback Kirk Cousins, ready to step up and fill the void left by departed receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Instead, Doctson is part of a receiving group that is counting on unproven talents to take on big roles, making the offseason all the more important.
“I like playing with those guys,” Cousins said, speaking of Doctson and free agency acquisition Terrelle Pryor Sr. “It’s just in-process.”
Doctson spent part of the offseason in Tampa, Fla. working with Cousins and, on Wednesday, it was apparent that they had developed a good rapport. On the first play of 11-on-11 drills, Cousins hit Doctson on the outside for an easy completion. Viewing conditions inside the Redskins practice bubble – especially with 90 players on hand – are far from perfect but it seemed that Doctson caught everything thrown his way.
In March, Doctson tweeted that he was 100 percent. Before the start of OTAs, Jay Gruden said that he was “full for everything.” Doctson said that means he’s 100 percent able to participate in practices, physically able to do whatever is asked of him. It does not mean that he’s playing at 100 percent of his ability. He doesn’t think his rhythm is back completely, and he doesn’t feel as fluid as he’s used to. Eager to shake off the rust, Doctson figured he was the most anxious player on the gridiron Wednesday.
“I was ready to have somebody guard me, not the strength coaches,” Doctson said.
The Redskins know they have to temper Doctson’s desire to make up for lost time. Because they don’t know exactly what was wrong, it’s hard to know how his tendons will respond to increased intensity.
“Now we’ve just got to continue to put one day after another after another,” Gruden said Wednesday. “If he does have soreness, we have got to taper off for him, but right now, so far, so good. I like the way he looks, like the way he runs and love the way he catches.”
The Achilles’ is the largest and toughest tendon in the human body. It connects the calf muscle to the heel and is critical in pushing off the ground. A person can walk relatively normally with a compromised Achilles’, but would have trouble running, changing directions and, especially, jumping.
Doctson strained his left Achilles’ during rookie minicamp just over a year ago. Save for one full-squad practice, he missed the entire offseason, training camp and preseason.
There was no evidence of structural damage, which perplexed doctors and made the Redskins reluctant to put Doctson on the physically unable to play list to start the season, a move that would have kept him out for a minimum of six weeks.
Doctson was active for the Redskins first two games of the season. He caught two passes, one of them a 57-yard reception against the Cowboys in Week 2 on a beautiful play that involved Doctson and DeSean Jackson both running downfield on the same side.
Man, was that a tease. The ability to line up Doctson with Jackson would have put another weapon in Cousins’ already-potent arsenal.
As Doctson pulled up, though, there was a subtly awkward skip in his step, like a colt learning to run before trusting his legs to stop when he wanted them to. The discomfort was now also in his right Achilles’. Doctson thinks he was overcompensating after his left was aggravated.
Doctson never got in another game. In late October, the Redskins put their top 2016 draft pick on season-ending injured reserve.
Aided by a search engine and too much time on his hands, he scoured the depths of the internet for answers, but found none that were satisfying.
“Shoot, I went on endless google searches of what it was,” Doctson said. “Seeing blogs and things of what people had this injury and it’s all different. Not everybody has this injury and the people who do, not all of them are professional athletes and if they are, they’re not all receivers.”
He tried unconventional treatments, including electric shock therapy.
“It’s the most unique injury I’ve ever been through,” Doctson said. “It was a lot of underwater pool exercises, staying off the Achilles’ but strengthening it at the same time. Resistance bands were also a big thing, like TheraBands and core work.”
While in recovery, Doctson found out that much of his body was out of line. A chiropractor realigned his hips, which were off-balance.
Doctson started running full-speed again in March. He thought he could have sooner, but the strength coaches told him to wait. They told him that there was no rush and that, really, his goal should just be to feel like himself again by training camp in late July.
For Doctson, though, he’s motivated by the desire to show the Redskins that they were right to use a first-round pick on him.
“I got drafted pretty high so I was ready to get out here and show my teammates and coaches and everybody that, you know, I am what they drafted,” Doctson said. “It sucked to not be out there but this year it’s going to be different.”
So far, so good. Doctson has already participated in double the full-squad practices he was able to last offseason. He looks the part of a first-round pick. The Redskins will still proceed with caution. Without knowing what went wrong in the first place, it’s hard to know how to prevent it from happening again, in a year when Doctson’s health and performance is significantly more vital.