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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.