Somewhere, in an elegant trophy shop with a surplus of sterling silver footballs, a trophy maker is sitting, concentrating, meticulously engraving Peyton Manning’s name into the 2012 NFL Comeback Player of the Year trophy.
Over the past 40 years, 42 players have been given the honor that seems to have been created for the season Peyton Manning is about to have. It’s not that Manning is a lock for an MVP-caliber season. It’s not that he’s certain to hold a different trophy — one with Vince Lombardi’s name engraved into it — at the end of the season. The Comeback Player of the Year Award is destined for his trophy case because, of the players who suffered through injuries or adversity during the 2011 season, Manning is the best.
The history of the award indicates that Manning is the prototypical recipient. Of the 42 honorees, 21 of them have been quarterbacks. That includes each of the last four honorees, and five of the last six. Seven of the winners are Hall of Famers, including Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Marcus Allen, and a few more could end up in Canton one day. And 35 of the 42 recipients have helped their team to a record of .500 or better during the season in which they were honored, something Manning’s Broncos are expected to do in 2012.
But if his neck problems linger into the upcoming season or if, however unlikely, he fails to return to form, there are plenty of other suitable candidates for the award.
A running back has won the award 12 times, the second most common position for the award. And if Jamaal Charles can duplicate his 1,467-yard season from 2010 after going on injured reserve with a torn ACL in Week Two last season, he very well might challenge Manning for the trophy.
Wide receiver is the third most common comeback player position with four winners, and Randy Moss’ one-year retirement in 2011 makes him a candidate.
Three defensive ends have won the award. If Mario Williams meets the lofty expectations placed on him in his new home in Buffalo, he will be on the short list as well.
Still, quarterback will be the position of emphasis for the award, as it is for most awards. And signalcallers who are coming off season-ending injuries like Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler and Matt Cassel are clear-cut candidates as well.
But there’s something a little bit audacious about predicting an NFL Comeback Player of the Year. So many of its recipients have won because of season-long performances that couldn’t have been predicted. Think of Michael Vick in 2010 after 21 months in a jail cell and a season on the bench. Think of Tommy Maddox in 2002 after two years of selling insurance and two years in the XFL.
There is a laundry list of contingencies for many players to find success in 2012 after missing time in '11. But let’s take a look at a few long shots to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2012, based on the likelihood they will perform well enough to win the award.
Titans WR Kenny Britt
It’s not just a torn ACL and MCL from which Britt is coming back. He has had a long 14 months that includes two arrests in the spring of 2011 and a trip to injured reserve after just three games played in ’11. All indications out of Tennessee are that Britt has matured in the offseason and taken his rehab seriously. If a quarterback battle brings out the best in either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker for the Titans, Britt could be the prime benefactor and come back in a big way in ’12.
Panthers LB Jon Beason
Only one linebacker has won NFL Comeback Player of the Year: Tedy Bruschi in 2005. But Bruschi never signed the richest contract for a middle linebacker in NFL history. Beason did. Before an Achilles injury sidelined him for 15 games in 2011, Beason started 65 consecutive games in Carolina, earning three Pro Bowl selections and All-Pro honors in 2008. He’s in the argument for the best MLB in the game, and he’s prepared to remind us why in ’12.
Seahawks WR Sidney Rice
Rice suffered two concussions in 2011 along with injuries to his shoulder and knee. And while he managed 484 receiving yards in nine games, he suffered from less-than-stellar QB play. If Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson saves the Seahawks from their distress under center, Rice could put up numbers like the 1,312 yards he amassed with the Vikings in 2009.
Rams WR Danny Amendola
Amendola was placed on injured reserve in 2011 after suffering a torn triceps in Week One. In 2010, he caught 85 passes and racked up more than 1,100 yards in kickoff-return yards. It’s a new-look Rams team in St. Louis with Jeff Fisher at the helm and Brian Schottenheimer coordinating the offense. We saw flashes of brilliance from QB Sam Bradford in his rookie season when Amendola was healthy. Perhaps Amendola’s presence will bring the best out of Bradford, and vice versa.
Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno
As things stand now in Denver, the Broncos' backfield seems to have been secured by Willis McGahee with Lance Ball as his top backup. But Moreno wasn’t drafted 12th overall in 2009 to be third-string. McGahee turns 31 in October and has played all 16 games only three times in nine NFL seasons, and Ball has zero career starts to his name. If Moreno finally realizes his potential, Broncos fans could be in for a pleasant surprise. Remember: We’re talking about long shots here.
Raiders QB Matt Leinart
OK, this one requires a few too many “and thens” to argue proudly. But the man who spent an arm, a leg and a midsection to acquire Carson Palmer — former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson — is no longer with the team and Palmer is on a short leash. Leinart is ready and waiting as his backup, just like he was a year ago in Houston behind Matt Schaub. A fractured collarbone ended Leinart’s resurgence into a starting lineup in 2011. If he’s given an opportunity under center in Oakland in 2012 and succeeds, Leinart will be the perfect riches-to-rags-to-riches story for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Injuries sidelined other top-notch players in 2011 like Eric Berry, Terrell Thomas and LaRon Landry. But no defensive back has ever won Comeback Player of the Year, so even a spectacular comeback by any or all of this trio likely will keep them off the list of candidates.
There’s also the peculiar case of Joe Montana in 1986 to consider. Montana, who played 15-of-16 games in 1985, suffered a ruptured disk at the beginning of the 1986 season that could have ended his career. Instead, Montana came back to start the final eight games and earn Comeback Player of the Year honors even though he played a full season the previous season.
Because of Montana’s case, we can look at players like Terrell Suggs, Adrian Peterson, and even Phil Taylor, each of whom played most, if not all, of the 2011 season, as potential long-shot candidates for comeback honors in ’12.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The trophy is Peyton Manning’s to lose.
Heck, his name is already on it.