The NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award is one of the most head-scratching awards in all of professional sports. Nobody really knows what it entails. Just look at the most recent award winners. All of them had wildly different paths to the honor.
In 2021, it went to Joe Burrow, who helped lead his team to the Super Bowl after suffering an ACL injury the year prior. In 2020, it was Alex Smith, who didn’t play particularly well, but won because of his ability to return to the field after suffering one of the most devastating, gruesome injuries in NFL history. In 2019, it was Ryan Tannehill, who wasn’t hurt the prior year, but resurrected his career as the starter for the Tennessee Titans that season, and that was the basis for his “comeback.” In 2018, it was Andrew Luck, and now we’re back on the injury bug, sort of mirroring what Burrow accomplished last year.
According to each of these notions, this year’s winner could be Saquon Barkley, who has led the New York Giants to an outstanding record (7-2) at the halfway point of the season after missing significant time with a series of injuries in 2021. It could be Christian McCaffrey, who’d been suffering those injuries for years and is now balling out with the San Francisco 49ers. It could be Derrick Henry for similar reasons to Barkley. If we were going to “recover from the most devastating injury” route, then perhaps the Commanders’ Brian Robinson could be considered for getting back on the field just four weeks after getting shot. If we were going the career resurrection route, then Seattle’s Geno Smith would be the frontrunner! It all depends on what the award truly stands for and this year could be very telling for how the award is looked at in the future.
Never before have there been so many legitimate candidates for an end-of-season award, and instead of trying to say one option is better than another, I’m going to try to diagnose the award via what I believe voters actually look at. And what is that? The story.
From what I can pick up, the player with the most enticing comeback story is the one who walks away with the hardware. Last year, Joe Burrow was all over everyone’s social media feeds in the postseason. You couldn’t walk two paces on NFL Twitter without seeing some iteration of Joe Sheisty or Joe Brrr. It certainly helped that he was balling out with his LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase and the duo were breaking all sorts of records just two years after having the No. 1 overall draft pick.
In 2020, Alex Smith had documentaries made about the injury he survived. It was the 17 surgeries, the infection, the near amputation, and Smith’s resilience combined with his desire to get back on the field, just to show his kids that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. Despite all that hardship, Smith went 5-1 as a starter and led his team to a postseason berth (albeit with a total team record under .500). That’s hard to pass up.
With Tannehill, nobody expected the Titans to compete for a playoff spot after starting the season 2-4 and benching their starter, Marcus Mariota. The Titans turned to 31-year-old Tannehill, and he blew everyone out of the water with his play. He practically turned Derrick Henry’s career trajectory around, went 7-3, and earned a playoff spot. What did he do after that? He proceeded to beat Tom Brady in Foxborough, beat the top-seeded Ravens, and reached the AFC Championship before falling to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s a good story, and it was seen everywhere that season.
With that in mind, whose story are we seeing most often in the NFL nowadays? It’s Geno Smith.
I’d like to add that the Seahawks’ lack of expectations coming into 2022 also plays a factor. No one, and I mean no one, expected the Seahawks to be this good. Everyone believed that the NFC West was a three-horse race between the 49ers, Rams, and Cardinals — all of whom made the playoffs last season. The Seahawks were the forgotten step-child, the ugly duckling of the division, and now, 10 weeks into the season, they are still the division leaders. Geno Smith has been arguably the second or third-best quarterback in the entire conference. He went from battling for Seattle’s starting role with Drew Lock to a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl. Whether it be his viral “They tried to write me off. I ain’t write back though” statement after beating Russell Wilson in Week 1, or battling tough with Tom Brady in the NFL’s first-ever game based in Germany, Smith has proven to be a ticket-seller. He’s proven to be a fan-favorite. He’s proven that he belongs in the league for years to come.
This is no slight at what the likes of McCaffrey, Henry, Robinson, or Barkley had to go through, but rather a prediction. Based on how the past votes have gone, Smith should be the recipient. Is that the way it should be? Maybe not, but you can’t deny that almost anything that man does nowadays gets talked about all over NFL social media, and that kind of publicity is prime Comeback Player of the Year material.