Jamal Anderson's breakthrough 1998 season helped power the Atlanta Falcons to success no one had dreamed was possible.
On Tuesday, the Falcons were hit with crushing news of a breakdown that threatens to eliminate any hope of 1999 success: Anderson is lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Anderson suffered the injury on his third carry in Monday night's 24-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Attempting to create running room as the Dallas defense poured through the Atlanta line, Anderson stopped and attempted to plant his right leg so he could cut to his left. Instead, Anderson's knee buckled and he fell to the ground for a loss of two yards. An MRI on Tuesday revealed the torn ligament.
"I'm extremely upset and saddened by this turn of fate," Anderson said. "I will do everything in my power to return better than I was before as quickly as I can."
Falcons coach Dan Reeves said doctors plan to give the swelling in Anderson's injured knee about two weeks to settle before performing the reconstructive surgery. A normal recovery period could have Anderson back as soon as next summer's training camp.
Last season, Anderson rushed for a team-record and NFC-best 1,846 yards while leading the Falcons to the NFC championship and Super Bowl berth. He was a workhorse, setting a NFL record with 410 carries. The Falcons (0-2) have already matched their 1998 regular-season loss total after tough opening games against Minnesota and Dallas. Now they have a short week to adjust for the loss of Anderson before playing at St. Louis on Sunday.
"The season is not over by a long shot," Reeves said Tuesday. "You can't feel sorry for yourself. In my opinion, if you start to feel sorry for yourself then that's what we'll be -- sorry, not a very good football team."
Adding to the team's woes is the continued uncertain status of quarterback Chris Chandler, the only player as vital as Anderson to the offense. Chandler missed the Monday night game with a strained right hamstring and remains questionable for Sunday's game against the Rams.
Even if Chandler makes a healthy return this week, Reeves' offense is based on a productive running game, and the loss of Anderson robs the Falcons of their only established running back.
"That's life," Reeves said. "That's the way life is. You're not going to get a lot of sympathy from anybody. People aren't really interested in anything other than results and that's what we've got to do. We've got to try to play the best we can possibly play with whatever people we've got."
The role of lead running back now shifts to Byron Hanspard, who missed last season with a knee injury but earned compliments from Reeves by rushing for 76 yards on 19 carries Monday.
Hanspard is considered to be more of a change-of-pace back, and his 19 carries Monday night easily set a career high. Though he has made a strong recovery from the reconstructive surgery on his left knee, to repair a torn ACL and patella tendon, Hanspard has yet to prove he can be a workhorse-type back, as Anderson was in three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.