A National Football League career can be physically taxing and only a few years in length due to the punishment that the game’s great athletes take each time that they step out onto fields for regular season and postseason games. Players on both sides of the football are one massive hit or one wrong step away from potentially suffering a career-altering injury roughly 20 times a year, and those who are downed by such knocks often struggle to recover the forms that they had before they were sidelined. While age eventually catches up with every pro athlete, some see the end of their playing days because of injuries even before they are able to enter their physical primes.
Then, there are the comeback stories belonging to players who made dramatic and incredible returns to the football field following different types of personal setbacks. Injuries are not always involved among the list of the top comeback stories ever seen in the NFL. One, as an example, is the story of a talented quarterback who made plenty of regrettable decisions over the years, choices that cost him several seasons of NFL football and also his freedom for a time. That individual, when presented with the chance to do so, turned his life around and resurrected his career, becoming a respected and well-liked teammate in the process.
Some of the comeback tales featured in this piece focus more on teams that overcame great hurdles during contests to emerge victorious on memorable days. Those games either already have lived on or will, in the future, live on for generations to come, long after the players who were on the field on those days have called time on their careers. There have been last-minute drives that occurred in conference championship games and on Super Bowl Sundays, historic victories that have defined the careers of some and that have ruined what could have been moments of glory for others.
20. Super Bowl XLVI
Four years after the New York Giants prevented the New England Patriots from finishing the year off with a perfect 19-0 record, the Giants were at it again, this time in Indianapolis. Quarterback Eli Manning kicked off the second championship-winning drive of his NFL career with a bullet strike to Mario Manningham down the left sideline, one of the best passes to ever occur at a Super Bowl. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw was famously unable to prevent himself from entering the end zone on the drive’s final game, a minor miscue that did not prevent the Giants from winning a fourth Super Bowl in franchise history.
19. Super Bowl XLIII
The Arizona Cardinals took a three-point lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers with under three minutes left to play in Super Bowl XLIII, but Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led his offense down the field for one of the greatest drives in Super Bowl history. Big Ben put a bow on the championship-securing drive with a six-yard touchdown pass thrown to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone, one of the greatest offensive plays in Super Bowl history in that Holmes had to get his body to a full stretch, secure the football and then do well to get both feet down in play.
18. Kurt Warner: 2005
The New York Giants went with rookie quarterback Eli Manning over Warner in 2004, and the veteran then signed on with the Arizona Cardinals the following offseason. Warner suffered a knee injury late into his first season with the Cardinals, but he recovered and evolved into one of the best overall quarterbacks in the NFL. He was forced to hold off Matt Leinart for the Arizona starting gig on multiple occasions, and he was a couple of minutes from being a MVP candidate at Super Bowl XLIII when Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holes and the Pittsburgh Steelers broke Arizona hearts.
17. Cleveland Browns: 1999
Browns fans were left devastated in the mid-90s when owner Art Modell shocked the region by announcing that he was moving the club to Baltimore. What followed was an ugly legal battle over the team colors and team name, one that was won by the city of Cleveland. The Browns returned to the shoreline of Lake Erie in the fall of 1999 to the delight of local football fans who had lost the heart and soul of the city, and, while things have largely gone poorly for the so-called “new Browns” since making a comeback to the NFL, those in Cleveland know that there are worse things than having a losing football team in town.
16. Randy Moss: 2007
Nobody ever questioned Moss‘s talent, but it was his attitude and supposed lack of being able to put in the necessary work that saw him get shipped to the New England Patriots before the 2007 NFL regular season. Moss became the best wide receiver in all of the NFL, finding new life while playing for what was maybe the greatest regular season team in the history of pro football. Along with quarterback Tom Brady and others, Moss was part of a historic regular season offense, one that failed to light it up in that memorable Super Bowl defeat to the New York Giants.
15. Willis McGahee: 2004
Some believed that McGahee would never play in the NFL after he suffered a serious knee injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, one that involved multiple ligament tears. McGahee entered the subsequent NFL Draft and was taken by the Buffalo Bills, and, after sitting out his rookie year while rehabilitating from the injury, McGahee had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing campaigns. He was the winner of the 2004 Comeback Player of the Year award, but McGahee has since rushed for over 1,000 yards in only two seasons. He is currently a free agent.
14. Doug Flutie: 1998
Flutie followed up a lackluster first stint in the NFL by becoming a star of the Canadian Football League. The Buffalo Bills gave Flutie a chance to win in the NFL in 1998, where he became a local sports star for a short time before he was once again relegated to backup quarterback. Flutie won multiple NFL Comeback Player of the Year awards for 1998, and he was also named to the Pro Bowl for that season. While he never enjoyed long-term success as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Flutie remains a player who is worthy of being named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
13. Rob Gronkowski: 2014
Say whatever you will about Gronk‘s personality. Nobody can deny that he has left it all out on the field during his career. The New England Patriots tight end suffered a torn ACL and a torn MCL in December 2013, but he returned in 2014 as good as he had ever before played for the Patriots. Gronkowski was the best tight end in the NFL last season, and the 25-year-old reeled in a touchdown pass in New England’s win over the Seattle Seahawks at Super Bowl XLIX. Gronk, the reigning NFL Comeback Player of the Year, has Hall-of-Fame talent. Now, he just has to remain healthy.
12. Super Bowl XLII
Eli Manning and the New York Giants orchestrated what may have been the biggest upset in Super Bowl history at Super Bowl XLII, stunning the then-undefeated New England Patriots on New York’s last offensive drive of the game. Manning linked up with David Tyree for what is known as one of the best plays to ever occur at a Super Bowl, and the New York quarterback connected with Plaxico Burress on his final pass of the evening, a touchdown that put Big Blue up for good. 19-0 was turned into 18-1, and it was the Giants and not the Patriots that made history out in Arizona.
11. Drew Brees: 2006
Brees was at the end of what was to be his final game with the San Diego Chargers in late 2005 when he suffered a torn labrum and also rotator cuff damage. While recovering from those injuries, Brees elected to not accept a low-ball offer to return to San Diego, instead joining the New Orleans Saints. It is in New Orleans where Brees evolved into one of the best quarterbacks in all of the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award as a member of the Saints. Brees has thrown for over 50,000 yards in the NFL, and he will be in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done.
10. Kurt Warner: 1998
Warner’s first ever NFL comeback began in 1998 when the St. Louis Rams took a flier on the Arena Football League standout player. History would be made only a year later, when Warner and the first edition of “The Greatest Show on Turf” qualified to play in the Super Bowl against the Tennessee Titans. Both teams fought to the very end of one of the greatest championship games in NFL history, and it was Warner and the Rams who emerged victorious. Warner had been named the Most Valuable Player for the 1999 regular season, and he also won the MVP for Super Bowl XXXIV.
9. Jim Plunkett: 1980
Plunkett battled injuries for much of his professional career and he was one of three quarterbacks on the roster of the Oakland Raiders when he was called upon to take over for Dan Pastorini, who broke his leg five games into the 1980 campaign. The former college standout eventually eased in as the Oakland starter, taking the Raiders to the playoffs and ultimately to the Super Bowl. Plunkett won Most Valuable Player honors for Super Bowl XV, where the Raiders beat the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was also named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year for that year.
8. Tom Brady: 2009
Tom Brady had a disastrous start to his 2008 NFL regular season when he suffered a torn ACL and a torn MCL in Week 1. He didn’t take the field for meaningful action again until the following year, during which he reclaimed his place as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Brady has rarely showed any ill effects from the knee injury he suffered years ago, making two additional trips to the Super Bowl and winning one of those games. He now has four Super Bowl rings – Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana are the only other quarterbacks to have reached that feat – and Brady is widely regarded as one of the best to ever play the position.
7. Joe Montana: 1986
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback was one of the best in the business in 1986 when he suffered a back injury deemed to be so serious that medical experts recommended to Montana that he should retire from the game. Montana had none of it, however, returning to the field later that fall and helping San Francisco win ten overall regular season contests. He was a co-recipient for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award that year, and Montana would go on to win multiple championships, an Offensive Player of the Year award, and berths in four different Pro Bowl squads up through the 1993 season.
6. Earl Morrall: 1972
Morrall was perceived by many to be nothing more than a backup quarterback when he took over for the injured Bob Griese with the Miami Dolphins in 1972. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Morrall helped guide the Dolphins to the only undefeated NFL season in history, a feat that still stands. While his poor performance in the AFC Championship Game cost him an opportunity to start in and win the Super Bowl, Morrall was still presented with the AFC Player of the Year and the first ever NFL Comeback Player of the Year awards. Morrall retired as a three-time Super Bowl champion.
5. Peyton Manning: 2012
The all-time great quarterback underwent spinal fusion surgery before the 2011 NFL season, an operation that signaled the end of his time with the Indianapolis Colts and potentially the end of his playing days. Manning linked up with the Denver Broncos in the spring of 2012, and he did not let Denver down. While he won Comeback Player of the Year honors for that season, it was in 2013 when he led what was a historic Denver offense, one that fell just a win shy of a championship. Manning is reportedly eying at least one more return to the field for 2015. That is good news for those who have thoroughly enjoyed watching him play over the years.
4. Michael Vick: 2010
Vick was an electrifying quarterback when his involvement in dog fighting was made public knowledge in the spring of 2007. He was ultimately sent to prison and indefinitely suspended by the NFL, and it was not until 2010 that he was again given an opportunity to be a starting quarterback, this time with the Philadelphia Eagles. Vick was a revelation in Philadelphia, a true Most Valuable Player candidate who deservedly won Comeback Player of the Year for his play in 2010. While he never again played at such a high level, Vick’s unexpected return to football glory and also the work he put in to rehabilitate his life were phenomenal.
3. The Drive
The Cleveland Browns were a little over five minutes of game time away from appearing in the Super Bowl for the first time in the history of the franchise when John Elway led the offense of the Denver Broncos onto the field in the final quarter of the 1987 AFC Championship Game. Elway took the Broncos on what remains arguably the greatest drive in the history of the NFL, a 98-yard journey to the end zone that completed when Denver tied the game up with under one minute left on the clock. The Broncos went on to win the game in overtime, and the Browns still have never yet made it to a Super Bowl.
2. Joe Namath: 1974
Namath, who suffered a knee injury during his days at the University of Alabama, was sidelined more often than not from 1970 through 1973 of his NFL career because of multiple injury problems. Thought to be in the twilight of his career at the time, Namath appeared in 14 regular season games in 1974, throwing 20 touchdowns for the first time since 1967. Broadway Joe was named the Comeback Player of the Year for that campaign, what was to be his final great campaign of his Hall-of-Fame career. Namath retired after the 1977 regular season.
1. Adrian Peterson: 2012
One of the greatest offensive players of his generation, Peterson suffered a torn ACL and torn MCL late in the 2011 regular season. Others would have missed at least the start of the following campaign because of those serious injuries, but Peterson was back on the field for Week 1 of the 2012 season, and he quickly reestablished himself as the best running back in all of the NFL, nearly breaking the record for most rushing yards in a single season that year. Peterson won multiple personal honors for his play in 2012, including NFL Most Valuable Player and NFL Offensive Player of the Year awards.
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