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 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.
Then there’s 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 an entire season. Soon, he would say a tearful farewell to Indianapolis, a city he’d put back on the NFL map, and hook up with John Elway in Denver.
Peterson’s left knee was still swollen after he’d 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.
Pagano’s 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.
“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 against Houston. That’s 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 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. 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 he’s not anything close to what he used to be, that all he can do is maximize what’s left in a body that’s been slowed by so many surgeons’ scalpels, and trips around the sun.
“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 win. “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.”
Maybe Manning’s being modest, maybe he’s suckering opponents into blitzing him more often so he can burn them again. Either way, it’s 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 he’d 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 year’s NFL lockout. They retreated to an indoor batting cage at Coors Field with a trainer in tow, and Manning’s first pass nose-dived so badly that Helton told him to quit goofing around.
Manning wasn’t 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 that’s 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 he’s put up, the obstacles he’s overcome, the shift of culture he’s engineered.
Manning isn’t 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.
There’s 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, he’s 207 yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s 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 he’s 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 only burnish the credentials of this thoroughbred throwback.
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. 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 he’ll 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.”
Yet, as transcendent as ever.
“If he’s lost anything, I can’t see it,” said Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in his prime in Indianapolis.
“I’m sure in some ways he’s better than he ever was. And he’s always been great.” — AP