From Peyton Manning overcoming four neck surgeries to Adrian Petersonís rebound from a shredded knee to Chuck Paganoís fight with leukemia, this has been the year of the comeback in the NFL.
A season besmirched by tragedies, replacement officials and a bounty scandal will also go down as one in which some of the gameís greats not only regained their old form but somehow surpassed it.
There are always feel-good stories about those who overcome long odds and broken bodies to regain at least a sliver of their past glory. This season provided an abundance of them.
When the season started, who could have expected Manning to recapture his MVP play so quickly with a new team? Or for Peterson to come back less than nine months after shredding his left knee. Or for Jamaal Charles to return better than ever after suffering a similar injury.
A year ago, Manning was in the midst of four neck operations to fix a nerve injury that had caused his right arm to atrophy and had sidelined him for an entire season. Soon, he would say a tearful farewell to Indianapolis, a city heíd put back on the NFL map, and hook up with John Elway in Denver.
Petersonís left knee was still swollen after heíd shredded it on Christmas Eve, an injury similar to the one Charles suffered earlier last season. Yet both would defy medicine and conventional wisdom alike to rebound as better runners than they were before getting hurt.
Despite a new supporting cast and a 36-year-old body he insists continues to confound him, the quintessential quarterback has had one of the best seasons in his storied career. Manning set franchise or NFL records just about every week while completing 68 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards with 34 TDs and just 11 interceptions.
And yet, he insists heís not anything close to what he used to be, that all he can do is maximize whatís left in a body thatís been slowed by so many surgeonsí scalpels, and trips around the sun.
ďI know you donít believe me when I say this; Iím still learning about myself physically and what I can do, itís still the truth,Ē Manning said after guiding Denver to its 10th straight win. ďI still have things that are harder than they used to be, so (thereís) things I have to work on from a rehab standpoint and a strength standpoint. Thatís just the way it is and maybe thatís the way itís going to be from here on out, I donít know.Ē
Maybe Manningís being modest, maybe heís suckering opponents into blitzing him more often so he can burn them again. Either way, itís a remarkable rebound for a man whose right arm was so weakened after one of his neck surgeries that he could hardly throw the football 15 yards.
Long before Manning ever dreamed heíd be wearing the orange-mane mustang on his helmet instead of the blue and white horseshoe, Manning met up with college buddy Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies for a workout during last yearís NFL lockout. They retreated to an indoor batting cage at Coors Field with a trainer in tow, and Manningís first pass nose-dived so badly that Helton told him to quit goofing around.
Manning wasnít messing with him. He was dead serious. His arm was shot, his future in football in doubt. A few days later, he underwent spinal fusion surgery and would miss the entire 2011 season.
If doctors had told him that was it, Manning said he would have called it a career without regret. But they gave him a bit of hope and thatís all he needed to embark on his comeback in Colorado.
Coach John Fox, never one to lobby for awards, suggested this week that Manning deserves a fifth MVP honor for the numbers heís put up, the obstacles heís overcome, the shift of culture heís engineered.
Manning isnít interested in talking about MVPs or comeback awards. He just wants enough wins to get a shot at hoisting another Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans in six weeks.
Peterson, on the other hand, is unabashedly clear in his desire for some recognition after overcoming torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, requiring the kind of reconstructive surgery that usually turns dominant players into ordinary ones.
Thereís a long, long list of players who had shortened careers because of such injuries. But Peterson returned to the Vikings lineup less than nine months after his operation, and with a league-high 1,898 yards, heís 207 yards shy of Eric Dickersonís single-season record. He can topple it with another big game Sunday when Minnesota faces Green Bay with a playoff berth on the line for the Vikings.
With typical unflinching confidence, Peterson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press heís expecting to win the comeback award.
ďI kind of have that in the bag, especially how Iíve been telling people Iím going to come back stronger and better than ever,Ē he said.
Carrying the Vikings to the playoffs without a potent passing game in a league dominated by strong-armed, accurate quarterbacks would only burnish the credentials of this thoroughbred throwback.
Pagano beat the biggest opponent of his life.
Paganoís fight started three months ago when it was disclosed he had cancer, forcing the first-year Colts coach to take time off for chemotherapy treatments. He returned to work this week, taking the reins from assistant Bruce Arians, who guided the team to a surprising playoff berth in his absence.
ďWhen I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games?Ē Pagano said. ďTough act to follow.Ē
If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the regular season finale against Houston. Thatís a final tuneup for the AFC wild-card playoffs that nobody saw coming for the Colts so soon after cutting ties with Manning, who switched teams, coaches, cities and colors and didnít miss a beat in 2012.
In any other year, the zenith of comebacks might be that of Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who battled back from three torn right ACLs ó in 2009, 2010 and 2011 ó to be a major contributor to the Panthers this year. No player in NFL history has returned after tearing the same ACL three separate times.
Charles missed nearly all of 2011 with a torn left ACL. Yet the former All-Pro running back has run for 1,456 yards, the seventh-best season in franchise history. He can break his single-season-high set in 2010 with 12 yards against the Broncos on Sunday.
Charles ran for 226 yards last weekend, when he surpassed 750 career carries, which also qualifies him for the NFL record for yards per carry. Charles is averaging 5.82 yards on 770 attempts, which far surpasses the 5.22 yards that Hall of Famer Jim Brown averaged in 2,359 attempts from 1957-65.
Charles, Peterson and Davis are all better than ever. Manning might be, too, but heíll never say it.
ďIím trying to be as good as I can at this stage,Ē Manning said. ďA 36-year-old quarterback coming off a year and a-half off, playing on a new team, Iím trying to be as good as I possibly can in this scenario.
ďItís a different kind of body Iím playing in and just a different kind of quarterback play for me.Ē
Yet, as transcendent as ever.
ďIf heís lost anything, I canít see it,Ē said Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in his prime in Indianapolis. ďIím sure in some ways heís better than he ever was. And heís always been great.Ē
Adrian Peterson (28) of the Minnesota Vikings runs against the Houston Texans in the second half of their game on Sunday, December 23, 2012, in Houston, Texas. (George Bridges/MCT)×
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano speaks to the assembled crowd. The Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay welcomed head coach Chuck Pagano back to work today at the Colts practice facility after he's been away almost three months battling Leukemia. With the Colts now assured a spot in the playoffs Pagano will coach the last regular season game this Sunday in Indianapolis against the Texans and then the pending playoff game. Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson and interim head coach Bruce Airans were also in attendance as well as Pagano's wife Tina Pagano and his daughter Taylor Pagano. (Sam Riche/MCT)×
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