Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, Chuck Pagano make strong comebacks | NFL
Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and Chuck Pagano have helped make this the year of the comeback in pro football.
The Associated Press
DENVER — From Peyton Manning overcoming four neck surgeries to Adrian Peterson's rebound from a shredded knee to Chuck Pagano's 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 also will go down as one in which some of the game's greats not only regained their old form but somehow surpassed that level.
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?
Then there is Pagano beating the biggest opponent of his life.
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 a season. Soon, he would say a tearful farewell to Indianapolis, a city he had put back on the NFL map, and team with executive John Elway in Denver.
Pagano's fight started three months ago when it was disclosed he had cancer, forcing the first-year Indianapolis 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.
"When 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?" Pagano said. "Tough act to follow."
If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the regular-season finale Sunday against Houston. That is a final tuneup for the AFC wild-card playoffs that few saw coming for the Colts so soon after cutting ties with Manning, who switched teams, coaches, cities and colors and didn't miss a beat in 2012.
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 in leading the Denver Broncos to a 12-3 record. Manning set franchise or league records just about every week while completing 68 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards with 34 TDs and 11 interceptions. He leads AFC quarterbacks in passer rating at 103.7.
And yet, he insists he is not anything close to what he used to be.
"I know you don't believe me when I say this: I'm still learning about myself physically and what I can do, it's still the truth," Manning said after guiding Denver to its 10th straight victory. "I still have things that are harder than they used to be, so (there's) things I have to work on from a rehab standpoint and a strength standpoint. That's just the way it is and maybe that's the way it's going to be from here on out, I don't know."
It has been a remarkable rebound for a man whose right arm was so weakened after one of his neck surgeries he could hardly throw the football 15 yards.
Manning met up with college buddy Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies for a workout during last year's lockout. The ex-Tennessee athletes went to a Coors Field indoor batting cage and Manning's first pass nose-dived so badly Helton told him to quit goofing around.
Manning wasn't messing with him. His arm was shot, his future in football in doubt. A few days later, he underwent spinal-fusion surgery and would miss the 2011 season.
Broncos coach John Fox, not one to lobby for awards, suggested this week Manning deserves a fifth league MVP honor for the numbers he has put up, the obstacles he has overcome, the shift of culture he has engineered.
Manning isn't interested in talking about MVPs or comeback awards.
Peterson, on the other hand, is unabashedly clear in his desire for 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.
But Peterson returned to the Minnesota Vikings' lineup less than nine months after his operation and, with a league-high 1,898 yards, he is 207 yards shy of Eric Dickerson's record for a season. 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 confidence, Peterson said he is expecting to win the comeback award.
"I kind of have that in the bag, especially how I've been telling people I'm going to come back stronger and better than ever," he said.
Carrying the Vikings to the playoffs without a potent passing game in a league dominated by strong-armed, accurate quarterbacks would burnish Peterson's credentials.
In any other year, the zenith of comebacks might be that of Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who battled back from three torn right ACLs — in 2009, 2010 and 2011 — to be a major contributor to the Panthers this year. It is believed no player in NFL history has returned after tearing the same ACL three separate times.
Kansas City's Charles missed nearly all of 2011 with a torn left ACL. Yet the former All-Pro has run for 1,456 yards. He can exceed his 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 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 Hall of Famer Jim Brown averaged in 2,359 attempts from 1957 to 1965.
Charles and Peterson are better than ever. Manning might be, too, but he will never say it.
"I'm trying to be as good as I can at this stage," Manning said. "A 36-year-old quarterback coming off a year and a half off, playing on a new team, I'm trying to be as good as I possibly can in this scenario. It's a different kind of body I'm playing in and just a different kind of quarterback play for me."