WITH BARELY 11 minutes elapsed in the Bengals' 2014 opener against the Ravens, Tyler Eifert was on his way to the type of matchup-mayhem-creating game he'd been drafted for: two catches, 23 yards. The first one came against a cornerback who couldn't cover him, the second one against an outside linebacker who definitely couldn't cover him. Eifert's next grab, a nine-yard seam route off play-action, put Cincinnati in the red zone, but after fighting two safeties for a few extra feet, the tight end spun to the ground at the nine-yard line and came down hard on his right elbow. On TV the landing looked awkward. Up close it was something else. As Eifert writhed around on the turf, he clutched a joint that appeared to have caved into his arm. ("We're going to spare you the replay," CBS's Spero Dedes told viewers, mercifully.) "Players on the field, they'd come up to me and be like, 'Oh, my God—ewww!'" says Eifert, who knew that meant "it can't be good."
Even so, Eifert assumed he'd reenter the game once doctors popped the joint back into place. But when he was still unable to bend his elbow past 90 degrees, he took the long, arduous walk to the locker room for X-rays—and that's when the pain really hit, to the point, he says, that he felt like "I was gonna puke."
Diagnosis: Beyond the dislocation, Eifert had torn his brachialis, the upper-arm muscle that flexes the elbow. "It was ground meat," says Eifert, meaning that surgery wouldn't fix him fast. "They couldn't really sew the muscle back together." The best thing for him was a few months of rest, during which time the muscle would heal itself. So the Bengals placed him on injured reserve.
They did so reluctantly. Eifert, after all, was blossoming into exactly the player team brass imagined when Cincy selected him with the 21st pick in the 2013 draft two months after he helped Notre Dame reach the BCS title game. Truth be told, that pick was a controversial one, as the Bengals had needs at other positions and already employed two-time Pro Bowl end Jermaine Gresham. But Eifert would show enough promise as a rookie (39 catches, 445 yards, two TDs) for the team to let Gresham walk this past off-season.
If there was anything disconcerting about Eifert, it was his propensity for fluke injuries. Toward the end of his rookie season he suffered a right-shoulder stinger so severe that it immobilized half his body. He missed the following game. Then, in the run-up to the 2014 season a teammate fell on Eifert's left shoulder, tearing his labrum, as he was diving for a ball in practice. When Eifert reaggravated that injury in the preseason, Cincinnati shut him down until Week 1.
And then he went down in a heap on the Bengals' third possession of the regular season, scuttling coordinator Hue Jackson's well-laid plans to feature Eifert more prominently. "Oh, boy, it was tough," Jackson laments. "I keep saying our best coaching job was a year ago; we didn't have a lot of these pieces that we do now, but we were still able to put together a decent offense."
By decent he means: The Bengals won 10 games in 2014, with an average point differential of just +1.3, and tiptoed into the playoffs with offensive stats—348.0 yards per game; 39 scrimmage TDs—right around the NFL average. Not entirely surprisingly, Cincy bowed out in the wild-card round with a 26--10 loss to the Colts, the franchise's fourth one-and-done postseason in as many years.
All the while Eifert looked on—sometimes from a suite or the sideline at Paul Brown Stadium, other times from home. "When the team was doing well, it was fun," he says. When they weren't, "you feel kinda helpless." Never mind that Eifert, in fact, was helpless. After arthroscopic surgery that November to remove scar tissue from his elbow, he went under the knife a second time, one month later, to patch up his other injury, the shoulder tear. The back-to-back procedures, which turned a half-season IR prognosis into a full-season shutdown, left him looking something like Lurch as he shuffled around the house of punter Kevin Huber.
EIFERT SPENT THE entire 2014 season renting a room from Huber, a seven-year veteran who's been known to board Bengals players, but their relationship wasn't strictly one of landlord and tenant. "We treated him like a child," says Huber, a close friend of Eifert's. "If he needed something, if he couldn't make the bed, we helped him." Huber and his fiancée, Mindi, kept Eifert's spirits up as his taut 6'6", 250-pound frame withered to a "soft"—his word—235 pounds due to poor eating habits and a lack of exercise. Suddenly, the same player who could "push weights around" since his high school days in Fort Wayne, Ind., who was No. 3 at his position in bench-press reps (22) at the '13 combine, couldn't even lift the bar. The first thing he benched in rehab: a hockey stick. "It was baby steps for sure," he says.
But hockey-stick presses soon became two-pound curls, which led to one-armed excursions on the elliptical machine, and by the time of OTAs this spring Eifert was back on the field, running and swinging both arms. That is, until his elbow became sore and swelled up in August. "I got nervous," he recalls. "Is something wrong? Did it not heal all the way? So I backed off for a couple days and put on an elbow brace. Ever since then, I've felt fine."
He's more than fine. Through eight games this season Eifert has operated with stunning efficiency, catching an NFL-high nine TDs—and that despite being targeted 17 fewer times than the next player on that list. Eifert's 37 catches and 434 yards are likewise good for No. 2 among Bengals' receivers in 2015, trailing only four-time Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green. And if he keeps up his pace, he'll be in the top two on Cincinnati's single-season leader board for all three stats.
Eifert's comeback has not only keyed an undefeated Bengals team that so far has boasted the league's most balanced offense, but it has also turned Andy Dalton's outfit damn near unstoppable in the red zone, where Cincy hits TD pay dirt 68.6% of the time, second best in the league. All nine of Eifert's scores fall into that category, suggesting that indeed he's the matchup nightmare—big and tall, with great hands; not easily neutralized with a linebacker or a D-back—this team was looking for.
Even scarier: We ain't seen nothing yet. "I kinda view this as his rookie season, because he hasn't done much," says Jackson. And Eifert shares that best-is-yet-to-come perspective. "[Rehab] was hard," he says, "but I knew I had time. I'm young and I can recover from this."
Where once Eifert hated seeing images of his injury, now he'll Google them, show them off just for kicks. "Sometimes," he says, "when I show people that picture, they're like, 'What's wrong?' And I'm like, 'Look—it's bending the wrong way!'"
And here he laughs. "It's pretty badass if you think about it."
The same player who could "push weights around" since high school couldn't even lift the bar. The first thing he benched in rehab: a hockey stick.
A series from the editors ofSports Illustrated AND WebMD
For more from Eifert on the lonely life of a recovering NFL player, check out the video at SI.com/thecomeback
NEXT SEASON ON "THE COMEBACK" ...
FOURTEEN PLAYERS, TOTALING 31 PRO BOWLS, WHO'VE ALREADY BEEN COUNTED OUT FOR THE REMAINDER OF 2015
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Team / Position
Panthers / WR
Packers / WR
Bears / WR
Broncos / OT
Ravens / LB
Lions / LB
Patriots / OT
Raiders / DE
Texans / RB
Chiefs / RB
Dolphins / DE
Steelers / RB
Ravens / WR
49ers / RB
WHAT A DRAG Clingy defenders have proved no match for a healthy Eifert. Injuries have been the real foe.
KELLEN MICAH/ICON SPORTSWIRE
SIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
IN THE ZONE With Eifert's elbow costing him all of 2014, Cincy ranked 11th in red zone scoring. In his two healthy seasons the Bengals have both times been No. 2.
THEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGES