A decade ago, an Achilles' tendon tear was a diagnosis that made NFL team doctors shudder.

It typically meant an arduous, year-long recovery, and even then, there was a one-in-three chance the patient never would play again.

The Achilles' tear that 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered last month still is serious, and his recovery remains long and difficult. But advances in how doctors repair the tear, as well as a more aggressive rehabilitation protocol, have improved his chances of coming back more quickly and with better strength than if he had suffered it just a few years ago.

Dr. Robert Anderson, who is the NFL's foremost foot and ankle specialist, operated on Crabtree's fractured left foot before the 2009 draft.

Anderson said it once took nine to 12 months for a player to recover from an Achilles' injury. Today, that time frame is down to six to nine months. In fact, Anderson noted that Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs was back on the field 5 1 / 2 months after partially tearing his Achilles' last year.

"What we're seeing, at least anecdotally, is that these guys are making it back quicker and with better strength characteristics," said Anderson.

The advances in Achilles' treatment are threefold, beginning with the surgery itself.

Years ago, doctors would make an incision along the tendon - 6 to 8 inches long - and suture the entire length to ensure the damaged area remained intact.

Today, the incision can be only 2 centimeters long, with fine but ultra-strong sutures used to repair the tear.

UC Davis' Dr. Eric Giza, one of the orthopedic surgeons for the U.S. Soccer Federation, said the minimally invasive approach preserves as much tissue around the Achilles' as possible, thereby allowing it to heal better and faster.