The epic seasons being turned in by Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and Denver quarterback Peyton Manning have deservedly sucked up all the oxygen in the comeback player of the year debate, but there are other notable comebacks unfolding around the league in varying degrees. By players and coaches alike.
You can mount a comeback from a lot of circumstances: injury, absence, obscurity, undefined adversity or just good, old-fashioned ineffectiveness. While Peterson's suddenly plausible quest to break Eric Dickerson's 24-year-old single-season NFL rushing record less than a year after major knee surgery and Manning's return to elite, playoff-bound form after his lost 2011 season are the screaming headlines, the comeback stories this season are varied and many.
Here are just six of the understandably over-looked in the comeback category:
? Thomas Davis, linebacker, Carolina -- No joint in the NFL has overcome more than Davis's right knee, which henceforth should probably have some sort of endurance-based award named after it. The Panthers eighth-year veteran played in just nine games from 2009 to 2011, tearing the same anterior cruciate ligament three times in a little more than 22 months. No NFL player has ever been known to attempt a return from three ACL injuries, let alone succeed.
But here he is late in 2012, not only playing again, but playing well for a Carolina defense that is ending the season on an upswing. Davis has started 10 of the 13 games he has appeared in at weakside linebacker, ranking second in tackles for the Panthers with 91, along with one interception, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three passes defensed. Davis, 29, has recorded double-digit tackle games three times in the past five weeks, with Carolina winning three of its past four after a 2-8 start.
In a typical NFL season, Davis might be slam dunk material in the Comeback Player of the Year balloting. As is, his historic accomplishment may not garner a single vote with Peterson and Manning dominating the discussion. It doesn't mean Davis has waged a third-rate comeback, far from it. It just speaks to the overwhelming depth of this year's field in terms of resiliency and recovery.
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? Brandon Stokley, receiver, Denver -- It's good to have friends in high places, and in Denver, nobody resides in the same stratosphere these days as Manning. At least in part, a relationship with the Broncos new quarterback was how Stokely's improbable return to the NFL unfolded. Back in February, Manning invited his all-but-officially-retired former Colts teammate to Durham, N.C., to help him continue his offseason workouts. Then came an overnight stay at Stokely's suburban Denver home when Manning was in town to visit the Broncos.
Stokely, 36, wound up signing with the Broncos and making the team out of training camp, and he and Manning just picked up rather naturally where they left off, from playing together for four years (2003-2006) in Indianapolis. After catching just one pass for seven yards last year in two games with the Giants, Stokely has again emerged as one of Manning's favorite targets, catching 37 passes for 463 yards (12.5 average) with five touchdowns -- his best production since 2007-08 in Denver. That makes him the Broncos' fourth-leading receiver, and adds a late-career comeback to a long and successful 14-year stay in the NFL.
? Jamaal Charles, running back, Kansas City -- No NFL rusher can be expected to compete with Peterson's spectacular renaissance season, but Charles' return to play-making form and recovery from his own 2011 ACL injury can't be dismissed. Limited to just two games and 83 rushing yards last season, Charles has rebounded to post production at least approaching his career-best 1,467-yard year of 2010, when he averaged 6.4 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns on the ground. He has reached the 100-yard rushing mark in four of his past six games, getting stronger as the season has progressed.
Though much of his solid work has been obscured by Kansas City's furious bid to lock up next April's first overall draft pick (a 2-12 record and counting), Charles ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing, with 1,230 yards on 249 attempts (4.9), and four touchdowns. His big-play threat is back in force, with seven gains of at least 20 yards, and four runs of 40 yards or more, including a 91-yard touchdown burst and 233-yard rushing day in the Chiefs' Week 3 upset of the Saints. Charles also has resumed his role in the K.C. passing game, with 33 receptions for 218 yards and another touchdown.
? Mike Shanahan, head coach, Washington -- After going just 11-21 and appearing clueless on the all-important starting quarterback front in his first two seasons on the job, the Redskins' head coach has staged an impressive late-career rally of his own in 2012, returning his team to relevance. With two games to go, the Redskins are positioned to win the franchise's first NFC East title since 1999.
Shanahan's daring Robert Griffin III gamble paid off. His puzzling Kirk Cousins gamble paid off. And even his curious pronouncement that his 3-6 Redskins would start evaluating players for 2013 somehow wound up sparking Washington's current five-game, season-turning winning streak. At 8-6 and in first place in the division with a favorable closing schedule, the Redskins stunningly find themselves in control of their playoff fate. It hasn't been a conventional route to the top for Washington, but Shanahan's big calls this season have been the correct ones.
? Jeff Fisher, head coach, St. Louis -- Like Shanahan in Washington, Fisher's reputation for winning had taken a beating in recent years. His final two seasons in Tennessee (2009-2010) had produced a non-descript record of 14-18, but his one-season break from the game seemed to rekindle his passion and give him a fresh perspective for what was needed to resurrect the once-proud Rams.
St. Louis isn't playoff bound in 2012, but the Rams have made obvious strides at 6-7-1 with two games left, beating and tying the first-place 49ers">49ers and posting an unbeaten 4-0-1 mark thus far in the NFC West. The St. Louis defense has played almost everyone tough this season, and the defeatist culture that prevailed in the Rams locker room has been changed. St. Louis enters the final two weeks with a chance to still post its first winning record since 2003, and may well enter 2013 as one of the chic picks to come from the middle of the pack and earn a wild-card spot.
? Bruce Arians, interim head coach/offensive coordinator, Indianapolis -- Dumped by the Steelers as offensive coordinator in January, reportedly for being too chummy with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who he helped lead to three Super Bowls, Arians resurfaced with the Colts on the staff of new head coach Chuck Pagano. Can you say masterstroke? With Pagano undergoing treatment for leukemia starting with the team's Week 4 bye, Arians, 60, was thrust into the dual role and thrived.
The Colts were 1-2 when he took over, but have won eight of the 11 games that followed, including a memorable 30-27 Week 5 comeback against heavily favored Green Bay in Arians' first game as a head coach anywhere since 1988. Indy, at 9-5, looks like a lock to make the playoffs as an AFC wild card, while the Steelers are 7-7 and struggling to stay afloat in the playoff race. No shortage of irony there.
Arians is richly deserving of NFL Coach of the Year attention for his incredibly deft touch with the upstart Colts, and as a former cancer survivor himself, he has handled Pagano's illness and absence with the utmost sensitivity and respect, refusing to consider Indy anyone but Pagano's team. With many NFL head coaching openings expected next month, it would be no surprise at all to see Arians' name surface as a strong candidate in several job searches.
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