As one of the 50 voters for the AP's year-end NFL awards, I've scratched my head more than once over many of them. MVP is tough because Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson, as well as a slew of young pass rushers such as Von Miller and J.J. Watt, all have excellent cases. But Comeback Player of the Year ... beyond difficult.
In this corner is Peterson, who at 27 has returned from reconstructive surgery on his left knee to have the best rushing season of his life. With 1,812 yards through 14 games, Peterson has already surpassed his previous career high, and if he averages 94 yards over the next two games, he will become the seventh man in the 93-year history of the league to rush for 2,000 in a season. Eric Dickerson's alltime single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards, set in 1984, is within reach.
And in this corner is Manning, who, at 36, with a new team and a new offense, is having one of the best years of his career—this after undergoing four neck procedures, including a spinal fusion, over a two-year period and missing the entire 2011 season. After a 34--17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, Manning has the Broncos on a nine-game winning streak, and he needs 685 yards over his last two starts to surpass his career high of 4,700 passing yards, set in '10.
Not to cloud the issue, but in most other years Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, 29, would walk away with the award. He had reconstructive surgery on his left knee in 2009, '10 and '11 (playing just nine games in that span and missing all of '10); this year he has started every game and is Carolina's second-leading tackler. But Davis's resurgence won't be enough to overcome his starry competition.
If I had to vote today (and I'm glad I get two more weeks), I'd probably split my vote between Manning and Peterson. As remarkable as Peterson's comeback season has been—no runner has ever come off this kind of surgery so strong—it isn't necessarily groundbreaking. In 2010, Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who as a slot man relies on quickness and strong cuts, played on opening day only 35 weeks after tearing his left anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, catching eight passes on his way to an 86-reception season. (Michael Vick won the Comeback award that season.) This year Peterson, who relies on quickness and power, played on opening day 37 weeks after tearing his ACL and MCL, rushing for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
Manning's season has been unprecedented. Other football players have returned from the kind of spinal fusion surgery he had, but none underwent three other operations on his neck, then changed teams and dominated a division the way Manning has with the Broncos, who clinched the AFC West title in Week 13 and are in position for a playoff bye. All of that while continuing to work to regain the strength in his throwing arm that the injury had robbed him of.
Both Peterson and Manning have earned the award. If Peterson hits 2,000 (or breaks Dickerson's record), I may change my mind and go with him alone. I know this: Whoever wins will be the most deserving Comeback Player in history.
SI took the vote to the people on Facebook and Google+, and here's what the voters had to say:
RICH GABRIELSON/ICON SMI (PETERSON)
ROBERT BECK (MANNING)