FOR ANTWAN ODOM, last season's Week 2 game against the Packers amounted to an out-of-body experience. Facing an inconsistent Green Bay offensive line that was struggling with injuries, the Bengals' seventh-year defensive end took down quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times in a 31--24 victory, tying a franchise record for sacks in a game. Afterward Odom seemed as incredulous as the 70,678 spectators at Lambeau Field. How could a lineman who'd never had more than two sacks in a game and was shut out in 49 of his previous 65 suddenly look like the second coming of Michael Strahan?
"It was crazy," Odom said last week by phone from Cincinnati, chuckling. "I was in a zone. I don't know where it came from, but everything I did worked."
That performance followed a season-opening two-sack outing in a narrow loss to the Broncos and fueled talk that Odom, the Titans' second-round pick out of Alabama in 2004, was ready to fulfill the expectations that accompanied the five-year, $29.5 million free-agent contract he'd signed in 2008. Through five games last year Odom had eight sacks—leading the league and tying his career high for a season—as the Bengals jumped to a 4--1 start. Then in Week 6 against the Texans, Odom heard a pop at the back of his right foot as he planted to rush Matt Schaub.
Diagnosis: ruptured Achilles tendon. Prognosis: pain—physical and emotional.
"When you're doing good and the team is winning, then all of a sudden you're no longer able to contribute, it takes you for a long ride," Odom said. "I had to do some real soul searching. I had to figure out how I was going to get back to where I was, how I was going to get better than I was."
Odom had surgery the day after the injury, began rehab two months later and was jogging by February. Now he says that he's ready to go full speed, though it remains to be seen whether he'll participate in this month's OTAs.
Odom's recovery will be as critical to Cincinnati's 2010 fortunes as the comebacks of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher—two other key defensive players returning from long injury layoffs—are to their team's. Although the Bengals won the AFC North for just the second time in 20 years, they struggled to find a consistent pass rush in Odom's absence, with just 18 sacks in the 10 games he missed and none in their wild-card playoff loss to the Jets.
Odom has set a goal of two sacks a game in 2010, though he admits that's a bit ambitious considering it would give him 9½ more than Strahan's league record. "I know it won't happen like that," Odom says, "but if I get one sack a game, that would still be good." And it would merely double his personal best for a season.
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Texans linebacker Brian Cushing is the latest player to violate the NFL's policy on performance enhancers, and like so many before him he's proclaiming his innocence. The NFL doesn't disclose the substances for which a player tests positive, and Cushing said only that it was a "non-steroidal." Still, in expressing disappointment with the league's rejection of his appeal, Cushing missed the larger point: He has no one to blame but himself. The policy states, "You and you alone are responsible for what goes into your body"—no gray area. Before the '09 draft Cushing (below) was dogged by rumors that he used performance enhancers at USC. By testing positive now, he has indelibly stained the Defensive Rookie of the Year award he won by a landslide.
JEFF HANISCH/US PRESSWIRE (SACK)
BACK ON HIS FEET Odom, who shocked the Pack with five sacks, says he's recovered from a ruptured Achilles.
DAVID KOHL/AP (CART)
[See caption above]
DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP (CUSHING)